Canada has a lot of oil and natural gas. The problem is, most of it is in Alberta, which is essentially cut off from the markets to which it must sell. Thus pipelines have become a huge issue across the Great White North, and though they are neighbors, Alberta, with much to gain from selling its resources, and British Columbia, through which the black gold must pass to get to the ports, have historically been unable to agree on the most equitable way to get these products to market.
While a framework agreement between the two provinces has been hammered out, and the federal government is on board with the notion of developing the export capability, there is no guarantee that either of two potential projects – Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain - currently being proposed will go ahead. There are stiff environmental stipulations in place and aboriginal protesters have been vocal in their opposition. Currently there seems little that any of the concerned governments will be able to do to quell widespread opposition.
What does this mean to the industry generally, and in particular, to manufacturers of valves, actuators and the companies that supply to and distribute for them?
How Many Valves Does it Take to Make a Pipeline Safe?
While there is a regulated maximum distance between shutoff valves to minimize the adverse effect of spills, in reality, the number of valves in a project and the locations of those valves is determined by topography, grade and temperature. The environmental damage that can occur from a set amount of leaking oil will be very different in an area with many streams as compared to a bald granite canyon.
Northern Gateway is Enbridge’s twinned 730 mile (1,177 km) pipeline that would bring oil-sands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. for shipment to Asia, and move condensate in the other direction.
In pages 34 to 38 of its application to the National Energy Board to build the Northern Gateway, Enbridge set out the preliminary locations of valves along the pipeline. The application shows more than 200 locations for valves, including those at pumping stations, and there are 132 remotely operated isolation valves on both pipelines.
This week, Canada’s National Energy Board gave its stamp of approval to the project, saying it will meet an economic need by diversifying Canada's oil market. However, the pipeline will be subject to 209 environmental, safety and financial conditions including rigorous pipeline inspections every two years to check for cracks and almost $1 billion in liability coverage in the event of a catastrophic oil spill. The company must also have a plan for monitoring the pipeline's effect on the environment and submit plans for monitoring species at risk, including proposals for caribou habitat.
While the decision is a major step forward for the $6.5-billion project, opening the potential for access to lucrative Asian markets, the final decision will be a difficult political test for Canada’s federal Conservative government. Despite Enbridge’s efforts to consult with local communities and First Nations over the last six months, Unifor, the 300,000 member-strong union created by the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, has stated this powerful labor group will support First Nations in opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
While Enbridge has always maintained that Gateway will be “world-leading” when it comes to pipeline safety and marine and environmental protection, a recent report commissioned by the B.C. government indicated that in a best-case scenario only 50% of the crude that leaked from a tanker following an accident would be recovered from the waters off the B.C. cost. That figure could be zero depending on weather conditions at the time, and since climate along the province’s north coast can be hostile and volatile, this is a huge concern for environmentalists and First Nations people alike. The specter of the destruction wrought by the Exxon Valdez hangs heavy in the air during discussions of tanker safety.
Tanker safety is especially of concern in the next project creating controversy in Canada. Kinder Morgan has proposed tripling the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain oil pipeline from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels a day. In operation since 1953, the 617 mile (994 km) pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby is the only pipeline system in North America that transports both crude oil and refined products to the west coast. Only crude oil and condensates are shipped into the United States.
The proposed expansion would “twin” the existing pipeline and take the same route for most of the way. With twelve new pump stations and 20 new tanks at various points along the route, there is huge business potential for the valve industry here as well. On its website, Kinder Morgan illustrates how modern-day pipelines benefit from some of the most advanced and environmentally-conscious technology available, much of it related to valves.
But potential accidents don’t end with the pipeline There will also be new marine terminals built to handle the anticipated increase in tanker traffic from the current five tankers a month to more than 30. While much of the discussion of safety has centered on the construction of the tankers and improved navigation tools, valves play a huge part in terminal operations as well, and here are more opportunities for manufacturers of valves, actuators and controls.
Keystone XL – Dead in the Water?
And still there is Keystone XL. Much of the current opposition to the project that would bring Canada’s heavy crude to refineries in the Gulf is focused on the notion that further development of Alberta’s oil sands will contribute to more greenhouse gas emission and thus to climate change. However, The U.S. State Department released a draft environmental impact statement that concluded the project alone would not have a major effect on development of the oil sands.
Development there will continue with or without Keystone XL; the question is simply whether the oil goes south to the U.S. or west toward the Far East via one of the above-mentioned pipelines. While President Obama is staying quiet about his intentions at this point, the entire project may in fact flounder as a series of oil discoveries in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian basins scattered across the continental U.S. have increased America's possible oil output to a level far higher than previously believed.
Plenty of Opportunity
While the current U.S. oil boom does not bode well for Canada’s oil industry or Keystone XL, for valve manufacturers, it’s a win-win. Currently most of the oil coming from the sites of the new U.S. oil boom is traveling by truck. Whether oil travels east and west or north and south, pipelines will have to be built, and they will need many valves.
As 2013 draws to a close and manufacturers, suppliers and distributors gear up for 2014, no doubt those in the valve industry will be watching closely the pipeline debates on both sides of the 49th parallel.