March 31, 2013

Pipeline company points to record of safety in tar-sands oil debate

Officials with the Portland-to-Montreal line offer a closer look at their protocols to try to alleviate opponents' fears about environmental risks.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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Unloading arms remove oil for storage from the oil tanker HS Electra at Portland Pipe Line’s pier facility in South Portland.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The headline in Life magazine from July 21, 1941, captured the importance of a construction project that was moving at lightning speed across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. “New Pipeline is Rushed to Help Meet the East’s Threatened Oil Shortage.”

Britain was under attack from Nazi Germany. The United States was poised to join the war and was helping its ally. Oil was needed overseas, and the U.S. was diverting 50 tankers a day from the southwest, with crude normally refined for the East Coast and eastern Canada.

Complicating the problem was the fact that refineries in Montreal couldn’t receive crude in the winter, when the St. Lawrence River iced over.

The solution was a 236-mile pipeline from Portland. It could operate year round and cut off a 2,000-mile round trip by water to Montreal.

Work began when the snow melted. Crews assembled in Gorham, N.H. One raced east toward Portland; the other headed west to Montreal. They worked 12-hour days, seven days a week.

The pace is documented in the 1941 film “The Story of the Portland to Montreal Pipeline.” It documents how the section from Gorham, N.H., to Montreal was built at “emergency speed,” with diesel bulldozers clearing a right-of-way through two miles of forest a day, followed by trenching and pipe-laying crews.

On Aug. 1, 1941, oil executives and government officials assembled on the U.S.-Canadian border at Highwater, Quebec, for a ceremony to connect the pipe. On Nov. 4, 1941, a tanker of crude oil from South America docked at the new pipeline pier in South Portland, a month ahead of schedule.

This original, 12-inch-diameter pipeline was taken out of service in 1982. Two larger pipes were later installed – an 18-inch pipe in 1950, and a 24-inch pipe in 1965.

– Staff Writer Tux Turkel

In a little over two days, the pig would be in Montreal, where workers would grab it from the receiving trap. Typically, the pig will push out a few gallons of a waxy buildup from the pipe walls.

"In most places, the pipe is in excellent condition because of this cleaning regimen," Hardison said.

To assess that condition, the company relies on a "smart pig." Smart pigs contain electronics and other sensors that can detect and measure pitting, corrosion, cracks and weld defects. An odometer records the location of these potential problems.

A five-year study by the Association of Oil Pipe Lines found that the overall number of spills on segments tested with smart pigs dropped by 50 percent.

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. has used this technology since 1981. It does the internal inspections at five-year intervals; the last was done in 2012.

Smart pigs have found "anomalies" that led the company to inspect, replace or repair sections of pipe, Hardison said, although the company declined to provide specific examples or details.

Taking action when an anomaly is discovered is a critical follow-up. In Michigan, investigators traced the Enbridge rupture to a 6-foot-long gash caused by corrosion and fatigue cracks that were detected in 2005, but not inspected further or repaired.

The Portland-Montreal pipeline is actually three parallel lines. The original 12-inch-diameter line was installed in 1941 to supply crude oil to Canada during World War II. That line was taken out of service in 1982.

An 18-inch-diameter line was constructed in 1950. It is currently idle due to lack of business and filled with nitrogen gas, which displaces oxygen to prevent internal corrosion.

The 24-inch line was built in 1965. It can handle up to 410,000 barrels of oil a day. Both steel lines are coated with coal-tar enamel to fight external corrosion. They also receive cathodic protection, a common practice for underground pipelines in which a more-easily corroded metal is sacrificed with the aid of an electric current.

All oil movement is coordinated through a control room located in a high-security section of the tank farm. The company uses supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, a hacker-resistant, industrial software program that gathers data in real time from remote locations. The program monitors eight pumping stations that move the oil from South Portland to Montreal: three in Maine, two in New Hampshire, one in Vermont and two in Quebec.


On the day the HS Elektra was in port, Peter Fickett was sitting in front of six computer screens, where he could follow the oil's journey.

The first screen displayed a schematic of the oil's flow path from the pier to four waterfront storage tanks. The second screen showed the flow from storage tanks and the associated valves and manifolds.

Screens 3 and 4 showed the status of the 18-inch and 24-inch lines as they passed through the pump stations and under the St. Lawrence River. They display all the operating data for the pipeline, including the oil pressure and temperature at each station. On this winter day, the oil temperature in South Portland was 52 degrees. It had fallen to 45 degrees at the Raymond pump station, 26 miles away.

Activists charge that tar-sands oil travels at high temperatures through pipelines, but Hardison said that's not possible in an underground, uninsulated pipe in northern New England.

"After the first 26 miles, it's at ambient ground temperature," he said, "and it stays the same until Montreal."

The Portland-Montreal pipe line also can't operate at high pressure, Hardison said, because of its design specifications. Protective devices, acting like electrical circuit breakers, keep the flow below a maximum allowed operating pressure.

A fifth screen monitors the tank farm and an oil refinery in Montreal, while a sixth screen graphs pressure drop over distance. This last screen employs Computational Pipeline Monitoring, a software tool that uses algorithms to help detect leaks. It calculates specific gravity, pressure and other inputs designed to make sure the volume of oil delivered to Montreal is the same as what went into the line in South Portland.

Fickett said he can shut down the pipeline within five minutes. Emergency shutdowns are rare, however, and Fickett hasn't seen one in four years on the job. Last month, as a precaution, the pipeline was shut down following a complaint about the smell of oil at a house near the right-of-way in Raymond. The homeowner called the pipeline company and the fire department.

"That's all the controller needed, and down it went," Hardison said. "He doesn't have to call anybody."

The problem turned out to be a faulty propane furnace. 

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or


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Additional Photos

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The tanker HS Elektra unloads its cargo of oil from the North Sea at The Portland Pipe Line operation in South Portland earlier this month.

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Tom Hardison, operations director for Portland Pipe Line Corp., says not every load of oil delivered to the company is accepted for transmission.

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Peter Fickett, a controller at Portland Pipe Line, monitors aspects of the oil flow between South Portland and Montreal during his 12-hour shift in the company’s control room.

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Pipeline workers prepare the scraper-launching trap in mid-March before their brush “pig” device was to begin its two-and-a-half-day trip to Montreal to clean the 24-inch-diameter pipe.

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Workers in 1941 use cranes called boom cats to lower sections of the Portland-Montreal pipeline into the ground in Vermont. Crews moved at “emergency speed” to meet wartime oil transportation needs.

Courtesy Northeast Historic Film


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