Clarifying facts about TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline following the Yellowstone River oil spill

The tragic Yellowstone River oil spill has shed light on the need for tougher standards to protect our communities and environment from pipeline spills. The spill shines a spotlight on the need for our pipeline safety regulators to examine the safety risks of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, a pipeline that would move 830,000 barrels per day of corrosive raw tar sands over the Yellowstone River. In the added scrutiny due to the Yellowstone spill, TransCanada advanced claims that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be better built, have lower spill risks, and have faster spill response than Exxon-Mobil’s pipeline that spilled 42,000 gallons of conventional oil into the Yellowstone River. However, there is a stark contrast between these rosy claims and  TransCanada’s actual record after one year of operation of its first Keystone tar sands pipeline.  As the Obama administration considers building another tar sands pipeline through our nation’s rivers and aquifers, It is critical that the decision be based on accurate information and not on overly-optimistic projections.   


The Yellowstone River spill is just another example of the need for stronger pipeline safety regulations in the United States. In a June hearing in which I testified on pipeline safety oversight, Cynthia Quarterman, the Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), said that the U.S. pipeline system was not designed with raw tar sands crude in mind, that safety regulations were not written to address it unique risks, and that PHMSA had not yet been able to study the issue or been involved in the environmental review for Keystone XL. Although a conventional oil spill, the Yellowstone River spill is another indicator that our pipeline safety rules are not strong enough.  

In the days following the Yellowstone River spill, TransCanada has defended its proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in statements to the press and in a letter to Congressional offices.  TransCanada’s claims of safety do not withstand close scrutiny:

1. TransCanada has made many assurances that if and when their proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has a leak, it will be able to shut the pipeline down much faster than Exxon did. Their actions with their other, similar pipeline don’t match their rhetoric – when TransCanada’s brand new, state-of-the art Keystone I spilled 21,000 gallons in May, it took the company forty-four minutes to shut the pipeline down after the spill happened. This appears to be a few minutes faster than Exxon’s response, but TransCanada had the benefit of a landowner that called the spill in. We’ve seen again and again where the theoretical responses of these pipeline operators are far better than their actual response. Unfortunately, the actual spills are the ones that have to be cleaned up.

2. TransCanada is assuring Montanans that the Keystone XL pipeline would be buried deep under rivers and streams in Montana and in other places along its route. Keystone XL would cross 1,904 rivers, streams and reservoirs along its route.  TransCanada plans to use horizontal directional drilling, a method of constructing a pipeline twenty or more feet below a riverbed, for thirty-nine of these rivers. At the 1,865 other river, stream and reservoir crossings, TransCanada would build Keystone XL a mere five feet below the riverbed.

3. New reports suggest that safety valves will automatically shut Keystone XL off in the event of a leak, leaving no room for human error. This hasn’t been true for TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline in the Midwest. The information TransCanada has provided the State Department clearly says that safety valves on the upstream side of the large rivers will be “remotely operated.” By “remote” they mean over the Canadian border in Calgary, Alberta.  And also, along the 1,980 miles of proposed Keystone XL pipeline, there would be only 136 safety valves - that leaves a lot of rivers and streams uncovered.

4. TransCanada suggests there is little risk of a spill on its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Even so, the magnitude of its worst case scenario for the segment of their proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would cross the Yellowstone River is significant. The company estimates a potential spill of 24,900 barrels or a little over a million gallons for that section. A similar size tar sands spill near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is still being cleaned up a year later. And even this figure raises questions, given the fact that Keystone XL’s real-time leak detection system doesn’t register spills less than 700,000 gallons per day (or 1.5-2% of its capacity). The company seems to consider leaks even of that magnitude as too small for more rigorous monitoring and will only rely on aerial inspections that happen every two to three weeks.

5.  TransCanada claims that their proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be built of thicker steel than Exxon’s Silvertip pipeline was. That depends. Exxon's pipeline was 0.5 inches thick. Keystone XL would be between 0.456 inches and 0.748 inches thick. Not much of a difference.

6. TransCanada also says that Keystone XL will operate at lower than allowed pressures. However, these pressures will be much higher than were present in the ExxonMobil or in any conventional oil pipeline. In fact, Keystone XL would operate at nearly twice the pressure of Exxon’s pipeline – the Silvertip had a maximum operating pressure of 960 pounds-force per square inch (PSIG) while Keystone XL must withstand up to 1,600 psig.

7. TransCanada makes much of its 60 year operation history, but much of that experience  has been in natural gas, and not oil pipelines. In fact, the State Department decided it was impossible to compare TransCanada’s safety record with the rest of the oil pipeline industry. TransCanada’s first wholly owned oil pipeline in the U.S. is the recently built Keystone I tar sands pipeline to the Midwest. Considering that Keystone I is the youngest pipeline to have been considered an immediate threat to the life, property and the environment by pipeline safety regulators, TransCanada is off to a rocky start.

8. TransCanada claims that the average amount of oil accidentally released on TransCanada’s existing Keystone I tar sands pipeline “is a few dozen liters per incident.” But this math doesn’t add up:  depending on which spill estimates you use, the average spill volume for the dozen spill on the U.S. section of the Keystone I line is between 1,460 and 1,950 gallons. More than a few liters, and significantly more than we were told to expect when TransCanada proposed the project.

As policymakers and the U.S. public consider whether the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is in the national interest, it is critical that they have the best, most accurate information available to them. Landowners and first responders deserve to know the full extent of the risks to which they will be exposed.  After all, if the Keystone XL pipeline is built through our rivers and aquifers, it will be staying there for a very long time.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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