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Gas pipeline explosion in Manitoba as resource projects on a relentless rise in western Canada

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The company seeking to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has had a massive explosion of its decades-old natural gas pipeline in southern Manitoba. The rupture of the TransCanada PipeLines (TCPL) gas line occurred in the middle of the night on Saturday, January 25 near the village of Otterburne. A massive fireball erupted into the night sky and burned for many hours.

The explosion tore a large crater in the ground. Several thousand homes in ten small communities were left without their gas heating during temperatures that have dipped to minus 30C. It will be some days yet before full service is restored.

The pipeline brings gas from Alberta to the U.S. across the Manitoba-Minnesota international border. It feeds parts of southern Manitoba along the way.

The company says it may take months to find out how the accident occurred. This news article from the Winnipeg Free Press reports on what is known so far.

The line that exploded is a southward branch from Winnipeg of the TCPL gas pipeline that transports gas to eastern Canada across northern Ontario. This is the route that the company is proposing for a multi-billion dollar Alberta tar sands pipeline that it calls ‘Energy East’. It would reach Montreal and points east. The oil industry and the Canadian government want the line to extend all the way to Saint John, New Brunswick. Another possible branch route from Montreal would connect to Portland Maine.

If the fossil fuel industry has its way, much of the export route for tar sands and fracked gas in western Canada will be via the BC coast. Coal shipments (including from the U.S.) are already transforming Vancouver and Prince Rupert into the first and third largest ports for coal exports in North America.

Now a working group of the BC and Alberta governments established late last year has issued a report with 21 recommendations to speed everything up. The report should set aside any misunderstanding that the BC government has ‘five conditions’ it wants to see met before it would support the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline proposal. The conditions were a public relations ruse to buy time for the government to overcome environmental and First Nations opposition.

U.S. scientists are warning that there are environmental risks, regulatory holes and serious unknowns regarding the shipment of Alberta oil-sands products by pipeline, rail and tanker. The findings are reported in a 153-page report last September by the emergency response division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In addition to all the gas and tar sands pipeline projects proposed in western Canada, there are two major hydro-electric projects on the planning boards—the $8 billion Site C dam on the Peace River in northeast BC and the $6 billion Keeyask dam on the Nelson River in northern Manitoba. Industry and government proponents of these dams tout them as ‘clean energy’ sources.

But the claims are bogus because the whole purpose of the dams is to increase energy demand and consumption for industrial and commercial purposes. In the case of Site C, the ‘clean energy’ claim is doubly bogus because Site will be used, in part, to power plans to vastly expand natural gas fracking in the BC northeast and transport it by pipeline to the BC coast for liquefaction and export to Asia. (See 'We'll fight Site C regardless of review', letter to Vancouver Sun, Jan. 30, 2014, by Liz Logan, chief of Treaty 8 Tribal Association.)

Site C will flood some 3,000 hectares of agricultural land as well as Aboriginal hunting and fishing grounds, ancient burial sites and locations where traditional medicinal plants are harvested.  Treaty 8 Tribal Chief Liz Logan made an impassioned plea against the dam on January 24 to the closing session of a federal/provincial review panel of the proposal.

Treaty 8 was signed in 1899 and covers a vast territory larger than France in northeast BC, northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and southern Northwest Territories. In BC, there are eight Treaty 8 signatory First Nations, with a population of app. 3,800.

Meanwhile a major battle is ongoing in Canada’s Yukon Territory over the Peel River Watershed, one of the last, remaining wilderness areas in North America that is untouched by industrial development. Two Yukon first nations and two conservation groups are taking the territorial government to court over its stated plan to open up the big majority of the watershed’s 70,000 square kilometers of territory to mining, pipeline and other industrial development.

The legal action was announced in Vancouver on January 27. Heading the legal team is Thomas Berger, the venerable, former federal judge who headed a landmark inquiry during the mid-1970s into a gas pipeline proposed for the Yukon and Mackenzie river valleys in the Northwest Territories. Berger’s report recommended a moratorium on any such plan.

To date, no Mackenzie Valley pipeline has been built, but in 2010, the National Energy Board made a favorable recommendation for Imperial Oil’s stated wish to build one. Plans for a gas liquefaction industry on the BC coast have only increased industry lust to proceed.

There are at least three factors that can cause pipeline ruptures: corrosion of the pipe caused by surrounding soil conditions or the product flowing through; shifts in the ground caused by earthquakes, sinkholes or melting permafrost; and human digging on or near pipeline routes.

Commenting on the Manitoba explosion, Environmental Defence’s Adam Scott told the Canadian Press he is concerned with TCPL’s safety record. Among other issues, a former engineer at the company blew the whistle on TransCanada last year, speaking out against the company's violations of pipeline building codes of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

“I don’t know why communities or provinces would trust this company to be safe,” Scott said.

“This just reminds Canadians that this infrastructure is risky, inherently, and they need to be thinking about whether or not they actually want to be building more of this…”

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