Stop Fossil Fuels

Enbridge’s Westcoast Energy Pipeline explosion: a case study in cascading failure

Enbridge's Westcoast Energy Pipeline explosion

Enbridge's Westcoast Energy Pipeline explosion

Transportation of natural gas and oil depends heavily on pipelines. In some areas, just a few pipelines bottleneck an entire region’s distribution.

On October 9, 2018, one of two natural gas pipelines within the same right-of-way ruptured and exploded. Both lines were shut down, halting one of only three major pipeline systems moving gas from Canada into the Western US. The disruption of 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day, 1 billion of which entered the US at Sumas, WA, forced immediate conservation measures:

  • FortisBC asked British Columbia customers to turn down thermostats and reduce natural gas use.1
  • Canfor, a Prince George pulp mill, shut down two sawmills.1
  • US companies Puget Sound Energy, Avista, and Cascade Natural Gas asked Washington state customers to conserve gas and electricity.1 2
  • Cascade Natural Gas cut off service to its large industrial customers.2
  • Oil refineries often depend on natural gas to fuel utilities, and sometimes as a feedstock. Shell Puget Sound and Marathon Petroleum refineries in Anacortes, WA, shut down some of their units,3 as did a Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale, WA and at least one other in the region. Gasoline prices spiked.4

The explosion exemplifies cascading failure:

Rupture of one gas pipeline → shuts down a second → severe gas shortage →

  • supply to industrial users cut off → saw mills and perhaps other industrial operations stop
  • 2 million customers asked to conserve energy
  • at least four oil refineries partially shut down → west coast gasoline prices spike, perhaps decreasing usage

Though most activists won’t be exploding pipelines, they should nonetheless apply systems thinking to their strategy and tactics, making the most of limited resources by triggering cascading failures. They should choose targets carefully, evaluating the possibilities with tools such as the CARVER matrix.


For more on systems thinking, read our front page beginning at "attrition".

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