Alberta leader asks pipeline firms to invest in new monitoring technologies


CALGARY -- The top energy official in Alberta's government said pipeline companies need to be prodded to invest more in new technologies aimed at preventing pipeline leaks and improving response times when spills occur.

"Our job is to make sure industry actually steps up to being early adopters of sensible, reliable technology," Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said in an interview. "We're mobilizing the industry to a higher level of performance."

The minister's comments come amid increased scrutiny over pipeline integrity following a series of high-profile oil pipe leaks in recent years and persistent questions about risks from proposed pipeline projects designed to carry even more heavy crude from Alberta's booming oil sands, such as TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL project.

In a letter dated Aug. 27, a copy of which was obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Hughes asked the Alberta Energy Regulator, the province's chief regulatory authority, to ensure "operators are using leading edge information and technologies to increase the prevention of pipeline incidents" and improve accident response efforts.

While stating that Alberta has been an effective regulator in the past, Mr. Hughes wrote "there is more that can be done to prevent pipeline incidents and increase transparency around the way pipelines are regulated."

That came five days after the release of a long-awaited provincial government report on pipeline safety that focused on ways to improve Alberta's regulatory structure. It was panned by opposition party critics and environmental groups for not analyzing the actual state of pipelines or industry compliance with regulations.

In the letter, the minister didn't identify any specific technologies for broader adoption, but he said they should encompass areas such as incident tracking, component traceability, and integration of pipeline-management and geographic-information systems.

A spokesman for the industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator had no immediate comment on the letter from Mr. Hughes, but he said pipeline integrity regulations were constantly under review. "We take a long-term approach as the industry's capabilities and the technologies continue to evolve," said AER spokesman Bob Curran.

Pipeline operators and oil producers rely on a variety of monitoring practices, including using sensors mounted on robots known as "smart pigs" that run inside of pipes. In the US, these smart pigs -- so called for the squealing sound they make when traveling inside a pipe -- accounted for 93% of inspections on hazardous-liquids pipe in 2012, according to federal data, but they have failed to detect some major leaks. Other methods survey the landscape above buried pipelines using airborne or satellite-based imagery.

Critics say the industry has been slow to adopt cutting-edge monitoring technologies despite a surge in pipeline construction. But the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association says those concerns are overblown, noting its members had a 99.9% safety record between 2002 and 2011. CEPA's members include Calgary-based pipeline operators Enbridge and TransCanada.

Although the province doesn't provide financial incentives to improve pipeline monitoring, Mr. Hughes said the government is working to foster programs designed to enhance safety, such as a proposed pipeline-worker training facility in northeastern Alberta.

"That's an idea whose time has probably come," he said.

Dow Jones Newswires

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