Burned by Bureaucrats

February 11th, 2018

I pulled into the parking lot of a purveyor of caffeinated products, a place called Tim Hortons, you may have heard of it.  It was about a year ago, and I was there to meet a new whistleblower.  You’d be surprised at the number of confidential sources that ask to meet at coffee houses.  There’s something about holding a cup of coffee that takes the jitters away.  Ironic, really.

This whistleblower was a promising source.  He wrote us the week before; “I read your article on the dangers of CSA [Canadian Standards Association] with great interest.  I too had a problem a few years ago while sitting on a committee discussing proposed changes to B149.3.”  The articles that got his attention are here and here.

The B149.3 Committee deals with natural gas and propane installation codes.  Our new source is a subject matter expert in oilfield burner controls.  These controls are covered under B149.3.

I got my coffee and took a seat at the back, beside a big window, commanding spectacular views of the parking lot and the rubbish compactor.  In time, my source arrived.  It turns out this guy’s retired now, CSA can’t harm him for talking. 

About ten years ago, this guy -we’ll call him Bob- was asked to represent his employer on CSA’s B149 Committee.  His employer paid for the chair, they just needed someone strong to sit there.  And that was Bob. 

Bob’s employer was a multinational energy company with major assets in Western Canada.  This company’s got a lot of oil wells, and a lot of these are affected by B149.  How so?

Think about a typical rural farm, a few hundred acres say.  This farm also has a couple of oil wells on it.  The well sites are relatively remote -that is, they’re not located beside a freeway or something, and they’re not connected to the electrical grid.  Very few oil wells offer RV park-like full service hookup. 

In fact, it may surprise some folks to learn that most well sites aren’t connected to oil pipelines either.  Instead, as the oil is pumped out of the ground, it’s stored on site in large tanks.  These tanks are then emptied to truck tankers every few weeks.  And that’s the tricky bit.

Oil viscosity increases as temperature decreases.  That is, oil is thicker, and harder to pump, when its cold outside.  You need to warm the oil in order to pump it from the tank to the tanker. 

Each of these big on-site tanks are built with gas burners to warm the oil.  Most of these are firetube tank heaters or indirect line heaters -like the burner of your gas barbecue, positioned to gently raise the temperature of the contents of the tank.  When the company wants to empty the tank, someone stops by to turn on the gas and light the burner.  Gradually then, the oil gets warm and as it gets “thinner” it can be pumped to the tanker.

It’s the lighting of the burner that’s covered by B149.  A few years ago, the CSA made some big changes to this regulation.  The changes were so big, so draconian, that provincial governments actually issued a special variance, like a waiver, so that companies didn’t have to comply all at once.  The CSA’s changes were so draconian actually, that companies were given a full decade to comply.  That variance, VAR GAS 05-05, finally expired in 2015.

What was so draconian about CSA’s changes?  Well, that’s what I asked my source.

“The changes were supposed to make fired oilfield equipment safer, with an expensive upgrade of electronic ignition, essentially a boiler control system which would cost $15,000+ for each burner.”  The change then, was to replace the practice of manually lighting the burner with an electric ignition switch.  But that’s fifteen grand, per burner, and a typical energy company would have hundreds of tanks.  That’s the draconian bit, right there.

In all, there are “hundreds of thousands of these tanks in Western Canada” and retrofitting was required on all of them.  Thanks to CSA, that’s several billion dollars’ of retrofitting.

But, said CSA, these changes are absolutely vital for, you know, safety.  An open flame, pressurized gas -it’s an explosive combination.  And that was their justification, that lighting these burners could induce flashover.

So, I said, how big is the danger of flashover?  Bob’s answer:  “There isn’t any.  There’s no danger at all.  I mean, freak accidents maybe, but that’s what it would take.”  Why?  “There’s a flame arrestor at the portal [where you light the burner] and that’s there to prevent flashover, that’s what it’s there for.”  So, I said, there’s no danger?  “No, none.”

Ok, but how many of these freak accidents happen?  “None.”  Well, I said, you’re being awfully categorical here, surely there must be some record of somebody, somewhere getting burned by these things.  “No.”  Well, how can you be so sure?  “Because there just is no record of any flashover accident with these burners.”

Oil tank heating practices are longstanding, they’ve been heated like this for sixty years.  “It seemed so pointless to change something that’s been working so well for this long.  Like, ‘if its not broken, don’t fix it?’  Yeah, like that.”

“I pushed hard at Committee to see the data that supports the changes but I got a lot of resistance.  The Provincial gas inspector, a Mr. W.C. LaRose, wanted the changes bad [and he was on the Committee], because it would expand his influence into the previously barren jurisdiction [for him] of upstream oil and gas.  It was all territorial because you need a gas fitter ticket for the interconnect.  Take that away, and he had less power.  He was also the guy that had the data.  I kept up at him, you know, nicely, it was a committee after all, but I asked over and over during those weeks how many injuries were supposedly related to lack of expensive electronic controls on oilfield line heaters, treaters and tank transfers and at first he refused to give any info.  By the end of our meetings, he’d admitted that there weren’t any injuries, no incidents or accidents.  He couldn’t cite a single injury or close call.”

Think about your barbecue.  Are you allowed to light your barbecue yourself?  Or should CSA start regulating it?

The implementation of CSA’s changes were a financial nightmare.  Remember how these tanks are in the middle of farmer’s fields, and that they’re not electrically connected?  How do you suppose electric ignition works at an electrically isolated location?  Well, send in the solar panels!  That’s right, the manufacturers of solar panels made a mint on this regulation, with tens of thousands of them installed in every producing province. 

Of course, winter is when its coldest, right?  And winters has the fewest hours of sunlight, right?  And it snows in winter, right?  And the snow settles on those spiffy new solar panels, blocking sunlight, right?  So when the heating need is greatest, ignition capacity is weakest.  How do you suppose they solved that?  Well, send in the batteries!  That’s right, the manufacturers of batteries made a mint on this regulation, with tens of thousands of them installed in every producing province.

Why on earth would a committee of experts do such a thing?  Well, said Bob, “while the cost for all sites of a typical company was going to be enormous, but the majority of reps sitting on the committee were equipment suppliers.”  Ah, right.  “They were excited to have the backing of the provincial gas inspector [also on committee] because it gave their interests the image of broad support, not just for themselves.” 

“The fix was in and the phoney safety card was played.  Since there were only two upstream [oil and gas] players on the committee, the outcome was inevitable.”  The manufacturers voted for the change because it meant massive orders -and massive money- for themselves, and the bureaucrats voted for the change because it meant massive increases in regulatory power for themselves.  They voted for themselves the contents of somebody else’s wallet.

We’re now in 2018, and, at each oil tank, we now have the original heater which, incidentally, still works just fine, plus a solar panel to redundantly do the same job, plus a battery backup system to compensate for the deficiencies of the solar panel, plus all the wiring, piping and infrastructure changes to accommodate all these other quite needless changes, and all purportedly to improve the safety of a system that already had a perfect safety record, and that for over six decades, and all these changes at an extortionate rate, all ordered by CSA and paid for by, of course, the companies CSA was regulating.

Maybe time to write your MP?