Pipeline blast brings natural gas crunch, pain at the pump

Island customers asked to limit use after pipeline rupture and fire in northern B.C.

Vancouver Island residents face higher gasoline prices and are being asked to turn down the heat as a natural gas shortage looms after Tuesday’s explosion and fire on the pipeline that supplies most of the natural gas handled by Fortis B.C.

Companies that rely on natural gas to run their operations are considering scaling back or suspending production.

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The explosion shut down the Enbridge natural gas pipeline about 15 kilometres northeast of Prince George.

Doug Stout, Fortis B.C. vice-president of external relations, said Wednesday that 85 per cent of the gas his company feeds to homes and businesses is carried by the twinned pipeline that runs from northern B.C. to the U.S. border south of Vancouver.

One of the two lines ruptured and exploded, but the second line was also shut while it was being checked for damage, prompting Fortis to warn of decreased energy flow and potential loss of service.

On Thursday morning, Enbridge said it has received National Energy Board approval to restart its 76-centimetre line, which was shut down as a precaution because it is in the same path as the 91-centimetre line that ruptured and exploded near Prince George.

As many as 700,000 customers in northern B.C., the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island could be directly affected by a shortage, Stout said. He urged another 300,000 customers in the Okanagan and southeastern B.C., to conserve, even though their natural gas comes from Alberta.

Energy companies in Washington state and Oregon have also asked their customers to conserve.

“Turn down your thermostat if you are in a cold spot. Turn off your furnace if you can. ... Minimize the use of hot water if you have a natural gas hot water tank … so we preserve the gas we have for as long as possible,” said Stout.

Dan McTeague, senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy, predicted gasoline prices will rise over the next week because the explosion has knocked out oil refineries in Washington state that rely on natural gas to power portions of their facilities that produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

In Greater Victoria on Wednesday afternoon, the price for regular unleaded at many stations rose to $1.539 a litre from $1.399.

McTeague said the duration of the spike in prices will depend on the length of time the pipeline is out of service.

“But it may be at least one to two weeks. Motorists are urged to only buy what fuel they need to limit the scope of the price increases,” he said.

Meanwhile, pulp mills on Vancouver Island, which collectively employ 1,200 people, are facing the prospect of significant curtailments if the natural gas supply is compromised.

Sources at Catalyst, which operates pulp and paper mills in Crofton, Port Alberni and Powell River, confirm the company, along with all industrial users in the province, has been told by Fortis to switch to alternative fuels

At Harmac Pulp in Nanaimo, which employs 320 people, the company has switched to oil as its fuel source.

“We can actually use oil for probably the next 24 hours or so and continue to run our operations, but after that things become more complex,” said Harmac president Levi Sampson. “If we are not able to use natural gas, we will probably have to curtail or take some down time.”

Sampson said like other mills and industrial users around the province, they are in a “wait and hold” mode.

“I know the priority is to keep the residents in B.C. being able to use natural gas — it’s the industrial users that take the hit when this kind of thing happens and that’s completely understandable,” said Sampson. “Tomorrow we should have a better picture of what the gas demands will be like and what the usage allowances are.

“But if it’s not cleared up in the next 24 hours, it becomes more complex and we will have to make some decisions.”

Terry Teegee, Assembly of First Nations regional chief, said he’s still shaken by what he witnessed outside his home on the Lhedli T’enneh First Nation reserve near the site of the explosion.

He said the blast sounded like a huge rumbling train or low-flying jet passing over his roof. Teegee said he saw a 60-metre fireball in the near distance and the impact showered him with dirt.

“When we were outside, I could feel the debris fall in my hair,” he said. “It was the ground or whatever that exploded. You could hear it start dropping. I thought it might have been hail, but it wasn’t. It was dirt. It was in my hair.”

Teegee, whose home is about one kilometre from the site, said he and most members of the community of about 100 people spent the night in hotels or with friends.

Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes said in a statement the explosion is the result of a rupture on a 91-centimetre section of the pipeline, causing natural gas being transported to be ignited.

“We can advise the fire on the pipeline has been extinguished, the line has been isolated and fully depressurized, Barnes said. ”As a precaution, an adjacent natural gas pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge has also been depressurized.”

Teegee said area Indigenous leaders met Wednesday with Enbridge officials but left the meeting with unanswered questions about pipeline infrastructure.

“To me, it’s just literally how vulnerable we are in that area,” he said. “For anybody who lives near a pipeline, you realize that these infrastructure are capable of breaching.”

The University of Victoria said Fortis B.C. has requested that it restrict its use of natural gas.

A memo circulated from UVic’s facilities management division noted the university has already switched its central heating system to diesel from natural gas, and has suggested staff and students bring warmer clothes to work and class. “The temperature in all buildings will be reduced in order to conserve fuel. UVic has contingency plans and backup systems for this type of unanticipated event, and will work to maintain the comfort of university buildings. At this time, it is unknown when regular heating service will resume,” the memo said.

Island Health spokeswoman Meribeth Burton, Island hospitals should not be affected. “Health-care facilities are considered among the highest priorities for Fortis B.C. We have not been contacted or asked to reduce our usage at this time, which would be standard practice through our agreement with the company,” she said. “Island Health can transition from natural gas to fuel oil if necessary, but again that hasn’t been asked of us.”

Restaurants around the province, on the other hand, are looking at ways of using less natural gas.

“We have agreed as an industry to get people to conserve in the event of a shortage,” said Ian Tostenson, chief executive of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

Tostenson noted that most commercial kitchens use natural gas, and 58 per cent of the fuel is used in food preparation.

He said they have asked kitchens, which often leave gas running, to shut it down when it’s not needed, watch overheating and ensuring water temperature isn’t too high.

“We are well down the pecking order in terms of use — we’re not like the big industrial users, but at the same time it gives us an opportunity to heighten awareness around conservation,” he said.

Homebuilders are not expecting to feel any impact unless a shortage becomes a long-term problem.

Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Homebuilders Association, said considering natural gas is the most affordable energy available, builders lean heavily toward building new homes that use it.

Edge said Fortis estimates 75 per cent of new homes are built with natural gas heating.

“It’s really grown in the last four years or so,” he said, noting Fortis has told him they have connected more homes in Victoria in the last year to natural gas than in any other year. “It’s one of the ways of addressing the high cost of owning a home in Victoria.”

Fortis currently has natural gas reserves in the pipeline south of Prince George, in its liquefied natural gas storage tanks in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, and there is some gas flowing from Alberta through a pipeline in southern B.C., Stout said.

Fortis expected to receive updates on the situation as Transportation Safety Board investigators and National Energy Board inspectors arrived to assess the damage and attempt to determine a cause.

The company will update its customers as soon as it is in a position to offer something new, said Stout.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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