Category Archives: Safety

Important Safety Update–How to Safely Perform Pipeline Connections


In a recent MATCOR blog post, we discussed exothermic welding and pin brazing: Cathodic Protection Pipeline Connections: Exothermic Welding vs. Pin Brazing.

While the article focused on informing, we briefly discussed safety: “both methods are safe procedures when trained personnel follow the correct procedures.” This article will take a deeper dive into the safety considerations and procedures around making connections to pipelines using exothermic welding and pin brazing technologies.

Trained Personnel

Only trained personnel with sufficient experience should make connections to a pipeline. Therefore, short-service and inexperienced personnel should only perform this work if doing so under the direct supervision of an experienced person.

Daily Tailgate Safety Meeting

Note: Different organizations use different terminology, but the basic process is the same.

Every day the team plans and reviews various site activities. At this meeting, they review all applicable instructions, and identify, discuss, and document all potential safety hazards. Each team member signs the document to verify that they understand all safety concerns and their responsibilities.

Safety Hazards

Because pipeline connections are thermal, potential safety issues include flash, burns, accidental ignition, pipe burn-through, pipeline damage, inhalation risks (dust, smoke, ignition product, etc.), and eye injuries.

Therefore, safe entry conditions must exist before team members enter a pipeline or other structure excavation site.

Proper PPE

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is non-negotiable when performing pipeline connection work. All team members must:

  • Wear a hard hat and face shield to protect their head and face.
  • Wear safety glasses under their face shield with a 5.0 shade rating for pin brazing to protect the eyes.
  • Wear a particulate mask to protect yourself from grinding dust entering the lungs. Additional breathing protection equipment may be required to protect against inhalation of welding fumes in poorly ventilated areas.
  • Wear fire-resistant clothing to protect the torso, arms, and legs.
  • Wear leather gloves free of flammable or thin material to protect the hands.
  • Wear safety-toed leather boots (no rubber, neoprene, or other flammable materials) to protect the feet.

Positive Identification of the Pipeline

Before any physical work such as excavation, coating removal, heating, grinding, or welding on a pipeline or other structure, the project owner should approve the proposed work and work methods. This step includes positive identification of the pipeline or other asset(s) by the owner or owner’s representative.

Air Monitoring

It is critical to monitor the air at the work site both initially and continually during the work with an LEL gas sensor.

Before proceeding, also test all flanged fittings and valves within 25 feet of the pipeline connection location should be tested with the gas sensor.

Thickness Measurement


Another critical safety step is for trained personnel to test the ultrasonic thickness of the area to be welded. The goal of this testing is to confirm that adequate wall thickness is present to prevent weld “burn-through.”

The table below details the minimum steel wall thicknesses as recommended by ERICO.

Record all results and compare them to nominal wall thickness. If the results indicate possible wall loss due to internal corrosion, the team must not proceed with exothermal welding.

Note: Do not perform exothermic welding if you measure a difference of 20% or more from nominal thickness or readings below 0.110” are measured.

Nominal Pipe SizeScheduleWall Thickness
10+”5> 0.109″

Coating Removal and Surface Profiling

Before coating removal, the pipeline operator should confirm that the coating is asbestos-free. Alternative removal procedures and safety precautions are required if the coating contains asbestos. A face shield should be used whenever grinding activities are performed.

Additional Considerations and Precautions

Explosive Internal Conditions

For active gas and liquids pipelines, the fluid velocity and lack of oxygen prevent the internal fluid from igniting due to the temperature rise in the pipeline wall. However, out-of-service lines are likely not fully purged, and oxygen and vapor may ignite inside the pipeline or vessel; purge these lines before proceeding.

Only perform exothermic welding on standard-thickness steel piping or vessels. Aluminum, copper, and thin-walled steel pose a greater risk of burn-through.

Don’t use anything larger than a 15-gram charge when welding onto steel fuel piping or vessels. Other structures, such as ductile iron pipes, may be more tolerant of more significant weld charges.

As you can see, both methods of pipeline connections are safe. However, adequately trained and experienced people must use the proper procedures and take the appropriate precautions.

To get in touch with our team of cathodic protection and AC mitigation experts for more information, to ask a question, or get a quote, please click below. We will respond by phone or email within 24 hours. For immediate assistance, please call +1-215-348-2974.

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MATCOR Adds a New Drill Rig to Our Fleet

Drill rig for cathodic protection installation

MATCOR is excited to announce the acquisition of a new drill rig to our existing fleet of HDD and vertical drill rigs.

Our newest rig is designed to be a cost-effective option for drilling shallow holes. The rig features a much smaller footprint than the conventional deep anode drill rigs used for installing Durammo® and other deep anode systems.

Drill Rig Features

The smaller and more agile auger rig allows MATCOR to be able to maneuver the rig in tighter areas than the full-scale vertical rig would allow. Additionally, the unit is available with a hollow stem drill pipe allowing us to lower anodes in place in environments where an open hole may not be feasible. The rig is capable of drilling holes down to 100 feet deep, but for hollow stem purposes, we are limited to a depth of only 50 feet.

What This Means for Our Future

MATCOR is excited to add this new rig to our industry-leading inventory of cathodic protection installation enabling us to better compete for:

  • Shallow conventional anode beds
  • Distributive anode beds around tanks and congested facilities
  • Mobility is increased since it is loaded on to a semi-trailer

For more information, please contact us at the link below, or reach out to your local MATCOR account manager.

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MATCOR Receives Colonial Pipeline Circle of Excellence Recognition

matcor field safe lg e1613665272197

MATCOR was recognized recently by Colonial Pipeline as a recipient of their prestigious “Circle of Excellence” designation. Colonial’s contractor recognition program seeks to recognize contractors doing their part to support Colonial’s safety culture in their own organization. To be honored in the “Circle of Excellence” contractors must achieve:

  • Zero OSHA Recordables (Colonial)
  • Zero Fatalities
  • Zero OSHA citations
  • Zero Line/Equipment Strikes (Colonial)
  • Zero Product/Non-Product Spills (Colonial)
  • Contractor Performance Evaluation score of 90 percent or higher (Colonial)
  • TRIR less than or equal to Industry Average
  • RAVS Written Program Score of 100 percent (Colonial)
  • ISN Dashboard Grade of “A” (Colonial)

We are pleased to receive this recognition. MATCOR has a world-class observation-based safety program focused on an “I own Safety” approach.

Learn more about MATCOR’s safety program at the link below.

MATCOR Wins Gold Score on Safety Audit

MATCOR’s Chalfont manufacturing facility recently scored a Gold Link award, scoring a 96% from our parent company, BrandSafway, during a Gold Link Audit.

The BrandSafway Gold Link Audit evaluates BrandSafway job sites and facilities around the US and at BrandSafway locations across the globe.

The Audit is an extensive review of a site’s safety programs and processes based around the company’s 7 Safety Links.

BrandSafway’s 7 Safety Links

  1. EHS Administration
  2. Safety Culture and Commitment
  3. Safety Meetings and Training
  4. Safe Work Planning
  5. Health and Hygiene
  6. Safety Program Compliance
  7. Service Specific Safety Compliance

MATCOR’s Chalfont manufacturing facility has earned a strong reputation for its safety programs. We have not had a lost time incident in over ten years.

We take great pride in MATCOR’s world class, ISO Certified quality cathodic protection and ac mitigation products. All MATCOR proprietary CP materials are built in the United States, in our Gold Link certified safe facility.

Have questions or need a quote for cathodic protection or AC mitigation materials or services? Contact us at the link below. For immediate assistance, please call +1-215-348-2974.

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Safety Programs for the Cathodic Protection Industry

June is National Safety Month, established in 1996 by the National Safety Council.

To honor this critical program, Rusty reached out to Zachary Seese, MATCOR’s Safety Manager, to talk about the safety programs in place at MATCOR.

Zac, thanks for joining us for this safety Q&A. Let’s start by asking the big question, what are MATCOR’s Safety Goals?

At MATCOR, our employees are the most important aspect of our business. Therefore, we are dedicated to providing a work experience that is always free from exposed hazards.

“Goal Zero” is the milestone we wish to achieve at all MATCOR work sites. In order to achieve zero injuries, we must identify remove hazards. To accomplish this, we utilize multiple safety methodologies.

How do you go about identifying and removing hazards in the work environment?

Behavior Based Safety (BBS) is one of the primary programs MATCOR employees and management participate in to communicate jobsite hazards and to audit jobsite conditions.

BBS involves active participation in three programs:

1) BrandSafway’s Employee Intervention System (EIS)
All MATCOR employees are encouraged to use the EIS program to document hazards experienced in the workplace and to share how they were mitigated. MATCOR employees also utilize the EIS program to document Good Catches and to make recommendations on how to improve processes.

2) Supervisor Observation System (SOS)
All field level supervisors complete SOS’s when they visit jobsites. Supervisor Observations is an audit tool which engages supervisors with our employees to assure that they are complying with MATCOR/BrandSafway EHS expectations.

3) Management Safety Review (MSR)
Top level supervisors including EHS Managers, Project Managers, Regional and Area Managers and above complete MSR’s as an upper level audit tool to ensure that all field employees and field supervisors are complying with MATCOR/BrandSafway EHS expectations.

These three programs are the cornerstone of our safety program, and everyone is responsible for identifying and removing hazards in the workplace.

What if an employee sees a hazardous situation?

Stop Work is the most important tool an employee at MATCOR possesses.

Any employee can stop any job at any time when they recognize a hazard. It is that simple – if something appears wrong our employees are required to Stop Work. In addition, all MATCOR employees and supervisors are trained to support stop work and to not retaliate against any employee who does so.

We recently received recognition from one of our customers for our proactive use of stop work. While completing close interval survey work, an employee began to show possible signs of heat exhaustion and their supervisor observed the symptoms. The supervisor immediately made the decision to stop the job for the day and give the employee an opportunity to recover. The near hit/stop work was reported and documented. The following week, one of the customer’s corporate officers commended the MATCOR supervisor’s use of stop work and described how those actions align with their safety expectations as well.

How important is training to maintaining a workplace environment free of all hazards?

Training is critical to our safety programs. And since our Behavioral Based Safety involves all levels of the organization, we have developed extensive safety training programs to engage our entire organization.

MATCOR training provides our employees with the knowledge they require to perform their tasks in a safe manner. In addition, it provides them with the ability to recognize hazards and the knowledge about how to react and report them.

We provide instructor- and computer-based training, competency training and hands-on assessments.

What are some examples of the safety training MATCOR provides to its employees?

The following list contains some examples (not all) of the trainings MATCOR provides its employees:

Computer-Based Training
New employee orientation (including our Life Saving Rules)
Code of Conduct
Stop Work Obligation
Distracted Driver
Defensive Driving
Confined Space

Instructor-Led Training
Fall Protection
NSC Basic Orientation Plus
PEC Basic Orientation
PEC H2S Clear
Incident Reporting

Competency/Hands-on Assessments
Task-Specific Operator Qualifications (in house and third party)
Aerial lift

Our supervisors receive higher-level training to ensure they are able to teach and ensure compliance with EHS standards at all jobsites. These supervisor-specific trainings include but are not limited to:
EIS/SOS Program
Job Safety Planning
Fall Protection
Personal Risk Tolerance
Drug and Alcohol Awareness
Stop Work Obligation
Material Handling

Where does technology fit in to MATCOR Safety Programs?

One key technology component in our arsenal is the use of tracking equipment on our extensive fleet of construction equipment.

This equipment travels from jobsite to jobsite, and while being transported, they are subject to DOT regulations. We utilize Geotab Electronic Log Devices with GPS tracking on all company DOT regulated vehicles. GPS tracking enables us to comply with DOT regulations, monitor for and correct adverse driving habits. It even allows us to locate and recover missing equipment, or to locate an employee who might be in danger with no communication.

Another key technology that is integral to our Behavior Based Safety system is our in-house Integrated Management System (IMS). The IMS allows us to track, collect, compile and perform data analytics on all of the collective reporting from our field personnel while performing observations. This data can be used to identify and focus on critical issues.

Thanks Zac, any last words on Safety?

One final comment – communication and continued improvement are necessary to ensure that our EHS program is successful. Our EHS department is engaged daily with all levels of our Operations to encourage active participation, and we know that it works. We can create a work environment that is free of hazards.

To get in touch with our team of cathodic protection experts for more information, to ask a question or get a quote for safe, industry leading products and service, please click below. We will respond by phone or email within 24 hours. For immediate assistance, please call +1-215-348-2974.

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MATCOR Safety Week—Planning for Success

In January, MATCOR held a one-week Safety training program for our Louisiana, Houston, Midland, Guthrie and Casper construction and field technical personnel. A total of 58 field personnel, excluding management and safety trainers, were taken out of the field, and brought to our Guthrie, Oklahoma facility for this training.

MATCOR - Corrosion Industry Safety

Taking a week off from performing paid work to focus on Safety is an important part of our commitment to Safety.

The training was broken into smaller teams and held in various meeting locations in two different buildings to allow us to provide proper social distancing to protect our employees during this period of COVID-19. The precautionary measures allowed us to safely train a large group of people without a single incident of COVID-19 transmission.

Topics covered included an 8-hour Basic Plus and Basic Plus Refresher course administered by the Oklahoma Safety Council, Excavation Competent Person training, Fork Lift and Backhoe Equipment Training, Operator Qualification certification, H2S ½ day training, CPR and First Aid, and training on BrandSafway Internal Safety Programs including Short Service Employee, Incident Reporting, Driving Safety Refresher, Confined Space, Fall Protection, Walking Surfaces, Job Safety Planning, Drug and Alcohol Policy, DOT Motor Vehicle Record requirements and a host of other topics. Trainers included outside third party trainers and in-house trainers from BrandSafway and MATCOR.

MATCOR continues to invest in our people, so that they are well prepared to perform their work in a safe and professional manner. 

Have questions or need a quote for cathodic protection or AC mitigation materials or services? Contact us at the link below. For immediate assistance, please call +1-215-348-2974.

Contact a Corrosion Expert

PHMSA Rule Making Updates – a look at what is ahead on the US Regulatory Front

See our October 2019 Update on the PHMSA Mega Rule.

The US Pipeline regulatory environment is poised to see several new rules implemented to expand the scope and effectiveness of pipeline regulations with a goal to improve the integrity and safety of hazardous material pipeline. These rule changes were all initiated years ago and have been winding their way through the regulatory process, soliciting input from the industry and from concerned citizens, environmental groups and other interested parties.

The Liquids “Final Rule”
In January of 2017 in the last few days of the Obama Administration, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a final rule amending its Rule 49 CFR 195 that among other things expanded integrity management and leak detections beyond high consequence areas (HCA’s). The Final Rule tightened standards and broadened data collection and monitoring requirements for pipeline operators. A few days into the Trump administration, the White House issued a directive to federal agencies to freeze sending new regulations to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) and withdrawing any regulations sent to the OFR. Thus the liquids “Final Rule” that was 6 years in the making was withdrawn and is awaiting resubmittal by the new administration.
While the exact requirements of the Final Rule may be changed, some of the key changes from the withdrawn rule included:

• Assessment of non-HCA pipeline segments every 10 years in compliance with provisions of 49 CFR Part 195.
• Increased use of inline inspection tools for all hazardous pipelines in HCA.
• Requirement for leak detection systems for covered pipelines in both HCA and non-HCAs.

PHMSA anticipates coming out with their revised “Final Rule” in the Fall of 2018.

The Gas “Mega Rule”

On the gas side of the pipeline regulatory environment, 49 CFR Parts 191 and 192, several public meetings have been held regarding PHMSA’s proposed gas rules, often referred to as the Gas Mega Rule. The rulemaking changes originally recommended would have nearly doubled the current number of pages in the regulations. PHMSA has announced that instead of one Mega Rule, the effort would be broken into three separate rules that are expected to be introduced in 2018 and to go into effect in 2019. Part 1 addresses the expansion of risk assessment and MAOP requirements to include areas in non-High Consequence Areas (HCAs) and moderate consequence areas (MCAs.) Part 2 of the rule making focuses on the expansions of integrity management program regulations including corrosion control to gathering lines and other previously non-regulated lines. Part 3 of the gas rule making is expected to focus on reporting requirements, safety regulations and definitions to include expanding into related gas facilities associated with pipeline systems.

Corrosion Industry Safety and “Captain Obvious”

by Rebecca Haring
Corrosion Industry Safety and Captain ObviousMATCOR Safety & Compliance Manager


Quickly, off the top of your head – what’s the most important factor in your daily corrosion industry safety work life?

It’s Y-O-U and Captain Obvious—what a Dynamic Duo!

Safety managers train you. Regional managers establish procedures and rules. Clients require certain clothing. Your supervisor warns you. But the bottom line is: No program, sign or protective equipment will work if YOU elect not to make safety an intentional part of your daily work life.

“But,” you say, “We’re told the job must be done faster and cheaper.” Be sure you include “The job must be completed without a safety event.”

Make no mistake, every job must finish safely. As soon as it doesn’t, safety becomes the MOST IMPORTANT measure of the job; and you become the yardstick.

Let’s review some simple ways for you to practice safety at every job every day.

Enter Captain Obvious to remind you of corrosion industry safety basics:


Check your work area frequently.

Look around and listen up! Use your senses to prevent a safety event (and you already do it all day every day). What do you see, hear or smell in your work area? Mobile equipment in use? Materials being moved? Walking area slippery? Cords or ropes in your path? Trash not discarded correctly? Machine making a ‘funny’ noise? Do you smell hydraulic fluid?

Observe how your work area changes during the day. Let those working around you know about the changes. Take an active role in making your job site safer by helping to make others aware of the little changes. Sure, you might sound like Captain Obvious. So what? When it helps everyone go home at the end of the day with nothing but a fatter wallet… then THAT’S a good day!

All MATCOR employees abide by our Stop Work Obligation. Every employee at our job sites has an obligation to intervene and stop work when a situation gets identified that could break one of MATCOR’s Life Saving Rules or cause injury or illness.

Electricity and equipment. Both start with “E” and both kill.

Here’s another one from Captain Obvious. Check your electrical equipment every time you use it. Drills, grinders, reeling machines and irons. If it has to be plugged in or charged, there’s the potential for a cracked case, frayed or cut cords or a short somewhere. Make a quick inspection for wear and tear, and intact strain relief and connections.

For larger equipment, like Pipeline Current Mappers, generators or interrupters, take the time to read the Operator’s/Owner’s Manual at least once before you running the machine. If the manual isn’t available, ask someone who has used the machine for a quick rundown.

Wide open and burning hot.

Many times when we hear about a workplace fatality, it involves some kind of fall…in a hole, from heights, or something falling on a worker. Considering the kind of work we do, every worker needs to be aware of 1) what he or she might fall over/into; and 2) what might fall onto him or her. Falls aren’t always fatal, but often workplace fatalities involve falls. Here comes Captain Obvious, again. Be aware and make others aware of anything that might make you fall; or that might fall on you.

Another situation that could burn us on a job site is fire (sorry for the bad pun there). Anywhere there’s machinery, combustible chemicals, or cad welding, the possibility of fire exists. Open flame, especially on a pipeline right-of-way could turn an ordinary day into a hot time that no one wants. Knowing what to do in the event of a fire at EVERY job site makes sense. Where’s the extinguisher? Do you know how to use it? What about the escape route from the site? Yes, you and your crew should create and review the emergency plan at each job site. After all, knowing the best direction to run IS an emergency action plan.

Where IS that first aid box?

Calling Captain Obvious… Do you know where the first aid kit is in your work area? Can you get to it quickly and easily? When was the last time you checked to see if it needed to be restocked? Though you may think that’s someone else’s job, it will matter most to you when you need to remove a splinter, bandage up a cut or treat a burn. Remember, we’re talking about how Y-O-U have the most important part of job site safety. If the first aid kit isn’t ready and available when you need it, the problem isn’t someone else’s. Check the first aid kit.

Corrosion Industry Safety: The last line of defense.

If we can’t engineer a hazard away, we write a procedure to protect you from it. When engineering or administration doesn’t quite eliminate a hazard, you get personal protective equipment (PPE). Here’s the rub. If you choose not to wear PPE, it doesn’t protect you (OMG, Captain Obvious snuck right in there). Hard hats, safety glasses, gloves, or earplugs might be uncomfortable. Then again, so are skull fractures, blindness, amputations and deafness.

PPE may be a last line of defense when it comes to corrosion industry safety, but that makes it no less important. Make sure you don it every time on every job…and speak up if your co-workers need to be reminded.

Wrap it up.

Workers need to take care at all times and at all job sites. No matter how many machines have guards, or safety policies the company writes, Y-O-U have the biggest impact on your safety. Awareness of your work space, inspecting your tools, knowing how to get out in an emergency or where to find the first aid kit are all factors in YOUR control.

You make decisions every day that impact how, or if, you and your crew go home. Will it be with a fatter wallet? Or will it be with stitches, or in a cast or worse? Captain Obvious knows.

MATCOR takes corrosion industry safety very seriously and maintains an excellent safety record.

Learn more about MATCOR Safety Programs or contact us for additional information.

Chief Big Dig engineer is fired over light fixture controversy

Helmut Ernst, the embattled chief engineer of the Big Dig, has been fired, the state transportation secretary said today, as the fallout continued from the controversy over a light fixture collapse earlier this year in one of the project’s tunnels.

Ernst had already been reprimanded and suspended for his role in the state’s failure to notify the public for more than a month after a corroded 110-pound light fixture collapsed onto the highway in the O’Neill Tunnel on Feb. 8.

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan said the department had finished a review of Ernst’s performance on Friday and concluded he could no longer serve as the District 6 highway director, the former title for his job as a top engineer in charge of the Big Dig tunnels.

Mullan said he offered Ernst other jobs in the transportation department, but Ernst, who has worked as an engineer for the state highway system for two decades, declined to take them.

“As a result of that, we terminated Helmut’s employment at the DOT today,” Mullan told reporters at the state’s highway operations center in South Boston. “It was clear that we lost confidence — I lost confidence — in him, and given some of the issues, someone in a leadership position like that, I would expect more,” Mullan said.

Tom Broderick, currently the chief engineer in the highway division, will replace Ernst while the department searches for a permanent replacement.

The collapse revealed widespread corrosion in lights throughout the 7.5-mile Big Dig tunnel system — and the delay by state officials in notifying the public sparked outrage and concern about the tunnels’ safety.

In an interview in July with the Globe, Ernst said his team of engineers filed no written report about the collapsed light fixtures despite state policy requiring documentation of safety issues. Ernst admitted his engineers had been wary about writing things down since the 2006 collapse of a Big Dig ceiling panel that killed a woman.

“After all the depositions in the ceiling collapse case, we just meet and talk about it … What’s the point of putting it in writing?” he said. He said engineers had been “trained not to.”

Ernst claimed he had called his boss, Frank Tramontozzi — who was forced to resign in March as highway administrator for his own role in mishandling the light fixture collapse — the day after the collapse. Tramontozzi said he didn’t learn about the collapse until Feb. 28.

Ernst also claimed he brought up the collapse at a Feb. 14 senior staff meeting. But seven other staffers, questioned by a staff lawyer at Mullan’s request, said they didn’t remember him mentioning it.

Mullan said he was not pushing out a whistleblower, who had spoken out about problems in the Big Dig. “I don’t think that’s related to it all,” he said.

He said there would not be a chilling effect on other employees, discouraging them from speaking out. “No,” he said. “It just didn’t work out, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

Mullan has said he plans to leave his own job by the end of the year, but said today he has not settled on the exact date when he plans to step down.


Oil sands critics target a new concern – pipelines

The crude oil that is pulled from Canada’s oil sands is thick and heavy, a black tar-like substance that takes large amounts of energy and effort to make into end products like gasoline and diesel. Even some people in the Alberta energy industry describe it as “nasty” stuff.

But is it also dangerous?

Over the past few months, critics of the oil sands have taken a new tack. They are now arguing that oil sands crude, which contains more contaminants than traditional sources of crude, poses a risk to pipeline safety – and they’ve linked the recent spate of North American oil pipeline spills to what they say is the corrosive content of oil sands products.

It’s an argument that began with environmental groups, but has now been taken up by legislators. Last week, for example, Alcee Hastings, a U.S. Democratic congressman, warned that “the risk of an oil spill from these tar sands pipelines is very real.”

“The oil eats away the pipelines, compromising them and leading to frequent spills,” he said during a debate on the proposed TransCanada Corp. Keystone XL pipeline, which will bring oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast if it is approved. That echoes a February report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential U.S. environmental group, which called oil sands crude a “highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable” substance that “may be putting America’s public safety at risk.”

That conclusion has always been contradicted by industry, which has maintained that oil sands crude is safe. TransCanada, for example, has argued that it simply would not place at risk its $13-billion Keystone line by filling it with a dangerous substance. Yet the debate highlights the political obstacles that exist for the project, a crucial piece of infrastructure for getting the ever-rising volume of Alberta oil to market.

The two sides have left little middle ground between them. So who is right?

Interviews with academics, engineers and federal officials make clear that oil sands crude does indeed appear to pose additional risks. But those risks are largely borne by refineries that have had to deal with a dirtier and more corrosive substance than industry has been accustomed to.

In pipelines, independent sources suggest that the danger is substantially lower. Indeed, in decades past, thick bitumen was actually used to coat pipelines as protection against corrosion. And pipelines are partly shielded by the fact that they operate nearer room temperatures. Refineries, in contrast, process crude at up to 400 degrees Celsius, and the fierce heat promotes a series of chemical interactions that don’t happen at lower temperatures.

The corrosion question largely surrounds the properties of diluted bitumen, also called “dilbit.”

Oil sands producers generally produce two different products. One, “synthetic crude,” has passed through a sort of pre-refinery, called an upgrader, to transform it into a lighter substance that contains far fewer impurities. Dilbit comes from producers that don’t run upgraders. Instead, they take the oil sands crude and, with minimal processing, thin it with a lighter oil and pump it into a pipeline. As a result, it contains far higher levels of numerous noxious substances, including sulphur, acids, salts and sediments.

That in itself has raised some concerns.

Take sulphur, for example. Oil sands crude contains sulphur levels up to 10 times higher than other oil. But in dilbit, the sulphur is locked up with heavy oil molecules. As a result, it is largely harmless inside a pipeline, said Harvey Yarranton, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary.

“You’d have to put it into reaction temperatures to release that sulphur – and those are above 300 Celsius,” he said.

Acids and salts are also found in substantially elevated levels in dilbit. But both substances are “not corrosive under pipeline conditions,” according to Natural Resources Canada, whose researchers have studied the corrosiveness of different oils. Acids need temperatures above 200 Celsius for corrosion to occur, the government said in a statement.

One area of concern remains sediments – little bits of sand that are embedded in oil. Industry measures these in pounds per 1,000 barrels. Conventional oil might measure 30 to 50 pounds per 1,000 barrels. Scott Bieber, a marketing manager with oil field services giant Baker Hughes Inc., has seen oil sands bitumen hit 500.

Sediments can contribute to corrosion in pipelines – and they have become a significant menace in refineries, where they have proven difficult to remove and help foul wastewater, Mr. Bieber said.

And environmental critics say that with the expansion in the oil sands, more study needs to be done of the effects dilbit has on pipelines. In particular, the thickness of oil sands crude – it’s far more viscous than conventional oil – creates friction inside pipelines that creates higher temperatures.

With Keystone XL, TransCanada has predicted temperatures as high as 55 Celsius. That remains far from the heat in a refinery, but higher temperatures do speed corrosion, and Anthony Swift, an energy analyst with the National Resources Defense Council, said governments both in Canada and the U.S. should take notice.

“There’s enough information out there about [the risks of] this stuff that merits a study,” he said. “The government should be protecting the public, and it’s a huge concern when they turn a blind eye to a potential danger.”


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