Nexen receives AER approval to return to full pipeline operations at Long Lake

Nexen and AER representatives examine the site of the emulsion release at the Long Lake project in July 2015. Image: Nexen

For the first time since July 2015, Nexen has approval to operate all of its pipeline infrastructure at the Long Lake SAGD project south of Fort McMurray.

Following the release of an estimated 31,500 barrels of bitumen/water emulsion, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) had ordered the immediate suspension of 15 pipeline licenses which required the shut in of 95 pipelines carrying natural gas, crude oil, salt water, fresh water and emulsion.

Amendments to the order in September 2016 allowed 50 of the 95 pipelines to return to service, enabling the company to return to full operations. The next month the AER lifted suspensions on 24 disposal and production water pipelines.

This week’s approval enables Nexen to return to service the remaining 21 pipelines impacted by the suspension order.

Nexen’s investigation revealed the rupture occurred June 11—a month before it was discovered—while the pipeline had been shut down for a turnaround. The root cause was determined to be a thermally driven upheaval buckling of the pipeline and subsequent cool down from the maintenance period.

The delay in discovery was attributed to shortcomings in the pipeline’s automation leak detection system.

The new AER approval to resume operations of all Long Lake pipelines follows the regulator’s receipt of an updated pipeline integrity program manual for the project.

Updates include:

  • A requirement for specific pipeline hazard identification and risk assessment processes for any new pipeline projects associated with the facility;
  • Creating new reliability targets for critical elements of pipeline operations, such as leak detection;
  • Developing pipeline operation and maintenance manuals during the project phase for all new pipelines, detailing identified hazards;
  • Improving the competency requirements for operational personnel responsible for the maintenance, inspection, operation of pipelines, including training with respect to potential hazards and processes and procedures intended to manage those associated risks; and
  • Utilizing of third party independent contractors to validate safety aspects of pipeline operation and design at the facility.

In its letter to Nexen, the AER points out that recession of the order in no way precludes the use of any future compliance and enforcement tools. The pipeline failure is still under investigation.