By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Jan 25 (Reuters) - A natural gas pipeline operated by TransCanada Corp exploded and caught fire in a rural area of the western Canadian province of Manitoba early on Saturday, but there were no injuries, a federal regulator said.
The explosion happened near Otterburne, Manitoba, about 25 km (15.5 miles) south of the provincial capital, Winnipeg. The area was evacuated as a precaution, said the National Energy Board, which oversees parts of Canada's energy industry.
"We could see these massive 200- to 300-meter high flames just shooting out of the ground and it literally sounded like a jet plane," said resident Paul Rawluk, as quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The line was shut down and was depressurized to contain the fire, the energy board said, adding it would work with the federal Transportation Safety Board to determine the cause.
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata said the fire was extinguished by early afternoon.
About 4,000 residents and other customers may be without natural gas for at least a day, according to Manitoba Hydro, the provincial government-owned energy utility. Temperatures in the province are well below freezing.
Sheremata said TransCanada and Manitoba Hydro were working to restore natural gas service as quickly as possible. In the meantime, trucks containing compressed natural gas were sent to metering stations in the area to provide critical service to nursing homes and hospitals, as well as schools and churches being used as emergency warming centers.
The incident comes as the safety record of pipeline operators faces increased scrutiny.
Plans are under way for construction of several export terminals on the Pacific Coast with the aim of making Canada, the world's No. 3 producer of natural gas, an exporter of liquefied natural gas to Asia.
Some of the new terminals would require new gas pipelines.
TransCanada and rival Enbridge Inc are also seeking government approval to build pipelines to move crude oil, but have faced fierce opposition from environmentalists and some aboriginal groups.
The natural gas explosion adds to concerns about TransCanada's safety record, just as it seeks approval this year for its Energy East oil export pipeline, said Gillian McEachern of the activist group Environmental Defence.