Greenhouses still feeling impact of pipeline rupture

When the Enbridge T-south pipeline ruptured in Northern B.C. last October, who would have known or even guessed the impact to greenhouse vegetable farmers? Everyone was glued to the evening news watching in awe and wondering how could something like this happen?

The next day reality set in. FortisBC issued a force majeure and curtailed all of its customers in certain rate classes to zero gas. This meant that as soon as it was safely possible, all gas customers in those rate classes could no longer use natural gas.

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Most greenhouse vegetable farmers have boilers that run on alternate fuels such as furnace oil or diesel and some have wood burning boilers. The alternate fuel boilers are in place for emergencies such as this but are more frequently used when there is an extended cold weather pattern with temperatures staying below freezing for more than a few days.   

By later in the week the smaller pipeline beside the one that ruptured had gas flowing, allowing some of the curtailed customers to use natural gas again. But this notice brought a hint of what was to come.

By the end of October the larger pipeline was repaired and everyone was permitted to use gas again, although the National Energy Board ordered that both pipelines run at 80 to 85 per cent capacity and be tested through their entire length. This testing reduced capacity even further, sometimes below 50 per cent. Testing was put on a schedule that completes at the end of October 2019.

Normally in mid-November greenhouse vegetable growers take their old crops out, shut off the heat and prepare the greenhouse for next year’s crop. Given the natural gas issue some growers started this process earlier than usual.

Replanting usually happens in early December, and some growers did go ahead at that time, but many delayed replanting until as late as mid-January, hoping to avoid the coldest part of the winter. Mother Nature played a cruel trick on everyone as February was one of the coldest months in recent memory.

Natural gas that cost $3 per gigajoule (GJ) pre-rupture was now $45 to $60 and who can forget one memorable weekend at the beginning of March when natural gas was over $200/GJ. To put this in perspective, at $60 it would be the same as if the price of fuel for your car went from $1.30 to $26 per litre. At the same time, the price of alternate fuels also went up.

This all created a new layer of business management for greenhouse growers. Once committed to young plants, the crop heating and CO2 needs must be met. They also cannot have less heat than they need or they will not be strong, viable plants.

Greenhouse growers now have to balance the needs of the plant, the heat and CO2 as well as the cost, running with alternate fuels during the night and natural gas during the day for CO2, watching the price of each of the fuel types and changing the fuel source sometimes hourly to arrive at the best possible outcome. 

When the weather started warming up, the stresses on the pipeline were reduced and the price volatility evened out, although growers eagerly await the end of the pipeline testing and the return to full capacity.

Article courtesy BC Greenhouse Growers' Association

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