Pipelines: More on the Montana – Cameroon connection

Farmer Jean Edzoa standing on the pipeline easement near Yaounde. He and other farmers in the area complain that "nothing grows" around the pipeline. Photo by Christiane Badgley

I recently wrote about ExxonMobil’s July oil spill in Montana and what lessons the Yellowstone River accident may have for Cameroon.

The same day an article in The New York Times, Pipeline Spills Put Safeguards Under Scrutiny, analyzed the regulation and oversight of the 167,000-mile system of hazardous liquid pipelines crisscrossing the United States.

The article describes a federal monitoring agency that is, “chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves…”

According to the article there are more than 100 “significant” pipeline spills in the U.S. each year (meaning they caused a fire, serious injury or fatality or released at least 2,100 gallons of toxic liquid). A graphic shows that tens of millions of gallons of oil have been spilled in Texas and Louisiana alone in the past 20 years.

As for the cause of pipeline spills in the U.S., “Nearly half of all incidents since 2002 arose from malfunctioning equipment, construction flaws and other technical problems with pipelines. Corrosion, which the agency considers to be different from equipment failure, is the second leading cause, and to blame nearly one-quarter of the time.”

The Times article also describes a situation where operators have “too much wiggle room when it comes to carrying out important safeguards, like whether to install costly but crucial automated shut-off valves.” Operators with too much autonomy over pipelines. Lack of inspectors and oversight. The reporters could have been writing about Chad and Cameroon.

Pipeline near Bipindi, Cameroon. Photo by Christiane Badgley

After reading this article, I contacted the engineer from the U.K. who I wrote about in my earlier post. So, I wondered, what would happen in Cameroon in the event of a spill at a section of the pipeline without automated shut-off valves.

His response: “What has happened in the States could happen on the CCP because they will not be able to shut down the pipeline in a matter of minutes as purported because some of the emergency shut-down valves are manual. If there was a major incident it might be hours or even days before the manual valve was turned off because some of those valves are in inaccessible locations, some accessible only by helicopter. How they would get all the necessary equipment there is beyond me.”

Conditions for the World Bank financing of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline included an elaborate monitoring system. This monitoring system is one of the project successes touted by the World Bank and has become – after the failure of the project to meet any of its poverty alleviation objectives – a sort of a posteriori justification for World Bank involvement.

An international advisory group (IAG) monitored the development side of the project, detailing Chad’s failure at meeting any of the poverty reduction objectives. D’Appolonia S.p.A. of Italy, a consulting firm, “was hired to monitor and evaluate COTCO,TOTCO, the Upstream Operator (Esso), and the two Governments’ ability to implement their environmental commitments.”

Unfortunately, D’Appolonia was not hired for the duration of pipeline operations (25 – 30 years) and, along with the IAG, wrapped up its work in 2009.

Societe Nationale des Hydrocarbures (SNH), Yaounde. Photo by Christiane Badgley

In theory the Comite de Pilotage et de Suivi des Pipelines (CPSS, part of Cameroon’s national oil company, SNH) oversees the pipeline in Cameroon. Chad has a similar monitoring operation. The CPSS may oversee certain aspects of pipeline operations like community relations and compensation issues, but ExxonMobil does all the monitoring and inspection of the pipeline.

It’s logical that ExxonMobil inspects the pipeline; it’s the lack of oversight that’s problematic. ExxonMobil sets the terms, inspects, makes changes as necessary and reports its findings online (this reporting is another condition of the WB financing). All of this is wonderful, except that Cameroonians and Chadians can’t verify any of this information. Is it objective? Is the risk assessment reasonable? Are the inspections sufficient? No way to know…

The progress reports on the Esso Chad website do contain numerous nuggets of information that point to what could be significant problems. You almost have to read between the lines, but the list of seemingly minor details adds up to sound somewhat worrisome.

Update #26 (2009), for example, discusses the first five-year inspection of the pipeline’s 17 major river crossings. “Preventative retrofits of nine valves are underway at high priority locations along the pipeline following a small oil spill (approximately 35 barrels) on land in Chad last year. Work was completed on six of the nine valves at mid-year. The first nine valves were given priority as locations where pipeline pressure peaks or because they might be difficult to reach quickly if something went wrong. Funding has been provided for retrofits at the other ten affected locations in the coming year.” The update also mentions a “seeping leak at another location.”

An oil spill? A seeping leak? 19 affected valves? We don’t get any elaboration, any specifics.

Update #27 (2009) reports on additional inspections. “A two year pipeline corrosion protection inspection program continued at year end, with more than half or the work completed. The inspection teams must walk every meter of the 1,070 kilometer pipeline…. It takes many months to complete the walk of the entire pipeline route because much of the right of way cannot be traversed during rainy season due to mud and rain swollen swamps and water crossings.”

This matter-of-fact description of how difficult it is to traverse much of the right of way during rainy season seems to contradict reassuring statements about how quickly personnel would be able to arrive on site in the event of a spill anywhere along the pipeline.

There are 29 project updates that anyone can consult online. This is an important transparency effort and one that we don’t see on many extractive industries projects. Perhaps everything reported in the updates reflects best international standards. Or not. The problem, again, is the lack of any independent oversight. There’s no one reporting on what ExxonMobil does, no government watchdog agency asking for verification or more information.

Just weeks before the pipeline crossing the Yellowstone River ruptured, a company inspection did not note any problems. The investigation of what actually happened is ongoing, but it is unlikely that the results will show that this accident was some sort of freak occurrence. Montana Department of Environmental Quality photos show that much of the pipe was not buried under the riverbed (as required), but was exposed and just under the surface of the water.

As I said in my last post on this issue, the climate conditions that resulted in repeated flooding of the Yellowstone River are also affecting Cameroon. A once every five years river inspection may no longer be adequate. Unfortunately it does not appear that anyone in Cameroon is pushing for a review of pipeline monitoring policy and, like in Montana, it’s likely that only a major accident will lead to any change.



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