The first Keystone tar sands pipeline spills again - providing twelve reasons not to fast-track the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

The first Keystone tar sands pipeline, constructed less than a year ago, has sprung its twelfth leak, spilling up to 2,100 gallons of raw tar sands crude oil in Kansas on May 29th when a pipeline fitting around a pressure transmitter failed. This comes just three weeks after a broken pipe fitting on Keystone resulted in a 60’ geyser of tar sands crude, spewing 21,000 gallons in North Dakota.  Surely this appalling record of spills should send a message to the State Department as it goes through the permitting process for a second tar sands pipeline – Keystone XL – by the same company that we need better pipeline safety assessments and regulations in place before building another tar sands pipeline through sensitive U.S. lands and waters. We have an agency that handles pipeline safety – the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). They should be making the assessment of the safety of diluted bitumen pipelines a priority.

The brief operating history of the Keystone pipeline provides more evidence that our conventional pipeline design regulations are inadequate for pipelines moving corrosive raw tar sands, or diluted bitumen, at high pressure. After all, the company claims that Keystone I was built with “state of the art” design features and was predicted to spill no more than once every seven years. We’re now at twelve leaks in less than a year of operation. Most troubling of all is that fact that after all of these warnings, State Department is still fast tracking the environmental review of Keystone XL – a project that would build the largest raw tar sand pipeline in the world through the Ogallala Aquifer – before our pipeline safety regulators evaluate and address the risks of diluted bitumen pipelines. Given what we already know, blindly rushing the construction of a raw tar sands pipeline through the largest source of ground water in the United States is folly.

The findings of a formal investigation by the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC) of the 21,000 gallon Keystone leak provided yet more evidence that safety regulations for conventional pipelines are inadequate for high pressure raw tar sands pipelines. The report found that the pipeline failure was not due to “any material or manufacturing deficiency” and that the “chemical compositions, mechanical properties and microstructure” met minimum design requirements for conventional pipelines. The report went on to state that the work required to prevent similar failures included 1) using stronger, thicker materials and 2) installing engineered pipe supports. In other words, conventional pipeline standards aren’t good enough for this pipeline.

TransCanada has spun these spills as a great opportunity to show how well their leak detection system works.  While it’s true that Keystone operators have had a lot of experience dealing with spills over the last year, there are some discrepancies in the company’s account of its leak detection record. After Keystone's 21,000 gallon spill in North Dakota, TransCanada claimed that the pipeline was shut down nine minutes after the leak occurred. However, the PSC investigation revealed that the leak occurred at 3:51 AM and the pipeline was not shut down until 4:35 AM – which makes for a pipeline shut down time of forty-four minutes. And that was with the help of a third party, as the investigation notes that Keystone operators were still validating the leak detection data when a local landowner called to report that a spill was visible above the treeline. 

The State Department doesn’t seem to be taking these concerns seriously. Despite Keystone I’s short and troubled history, the State Department included some spill projections for Keystone XL in its Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) that border on the ridiculous. For instance, the State Department predicts that 1,980 mile Keystone XL pipeline will have a leak due to flooding and washout once every 87,800 years. In another unprecedented prediction, it expects an incident on the pipeline due to corrosion once every 3,400 years.

This can’t be the scientific examination of the dangers presented by Keystone XL that President Obama promised. The fact that the State Department believed that these estimates, or any methodology that would produce these estimates, were credible enough to include in a SDEIS indicates how little attention and expertise they’re bringing to the environmental review process. It also suggests that our pipeline safety regulators are not paying attention to the environmental review process or the potential risks posed by Keystone XL.

The Keystone XL pipeline has serious risks which deserve serious consideration. The State Department should not be fast tracking this project before the pipeline safety regulators at the Department of Transportation have the chance to take a close look at the safety issues of diluted bitumen. And the Department of Transportation needs to engage in this before we build a disaster prone pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer – Secretary LaHood claims that pipeline safety is a priority for his Department. Doing basic due diligence on tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL would be a good place to start.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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