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

Anthony Swift

Posted July 7, 2011

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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.

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John S. SoninJul 8 2011 04:18 PM

This extreme right-wing agenda Americans are now living with has gone way too-far into fantasyland and is only condemning the rest of us to a life of miserable distress while aborting our Mother’s pre- and post-natal life! Not only is Big Oil desecrating Gaia’s deep-water womb and scraping Her uteri coastal zones, but now right-wing senseless thinking hopes to pipe caustic and profusely toxic, tar sand oil-gook right down the middle of America’s breadbasket—the “placenta” nurturing American civilization. Insulting Her injuries further, they’re pumping synthetic toxins, “fracking ” the pores of Her life-sustaining crust, for natural gas, even when we have a century’s supply ready to go in Alaska simply for the short-term cost/profit differential.
The unrelenting capitalistic care-LESS-ness for our functionally organized and synergistic planetary system, and the civil order upon it humans have created, seeks nothing less than scarcity and serfdom for the human race. They seem oblivious to civilization’s ultimate return to feudalism this short-sighted, egomaniacal desire to dominate will avail upon the rest of us, suggests that for real farsighted leadership, we must look to the Left.
It pains me to see that much of the anti-government Tea Party, incited by profit-seeking provocateurs and the absurdly ignorant propaganda they’ve created, will find out the hard way how important a structurally sound government and more even distribution of resource control is for rescue from this “spring 2011” hypocritical fantasyland.

John S. Sonin

RobertJul 8 2011 06:34 PM

I can understand the apparent need for oil. After all, it's what's for "dinner". However, we should stop the tar sands.

The alternative is in developing advanced machine automation and the right to mine for all materials necessary for the creation of a GaAs/LiFePO4 based economy.

GaAs is NASA type solar panels which, on Earth needs to be used with a dish mirror in order to conserve rare gallium. Robotically made 500 sun cells and dish parts would make this energy source almost free!

Same with the LiFePO4 battery. Even though less energy dense as the li-ion, it will NOT catch fire when over heated and will last four or five times longer cycling. This type uses less lithium too (which is not as rare as most would have you think).

There is NO reason why we can't have unlimited, almost free energy from the sun... 24/7. Even more, on a large scale billions of such two axis tracking dishes would actually contribute to POSITIVE ALBEDO because, unlike flatplate panels, most the unused energy, about 70% of the sunlight, is NOT? re-emitted as infrared, but instead re-emitted as light which would reflect brightly back at the sun (instead of being absorbed and re-emitted back down by CO2.

Pipeline PeteJul 9 2011 10:59 PM

It's interestng we didn't hear about the clean up of these Keystone spills. Maybe because they occured at pump sites where the leaks are most common and were contained in a retainment pond specifically designed for that purpose. I'm all for being environmentally friendly but let's tell the whole truth. If truth is on your side you shouldn't have to mislead people. A lot of these communities need the revenue from the pipeline and the best thing would be to build it with the upmost concerns for safety with strong oversight.

Jon KruseJul 21 2011 12:31 AM

TransCanada buried the Keystone 1 tar sands oil pipeline on our farm. We found out there have been instances of defective steel rushed into production and installation during the same period as the building of the Keystone 1 pipeline. Documents from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration include no evidence of defects in this pipeline, but they also include no evidence that PHMSA investigated materials that went into the pipeline. The manufacturer of the defective steel is the India company Welspun, which supplied 47% of the steel for the pipeline. We photographed the pipe before it was buried on our farm, and indeed, it’s Welspun pipe. Now, we are concerned that untested and defective pipe under our land is ready to spring an oily leak. Now TransCanada wants to build the XL Pipeline from steel pipe made in China that is weaker than US Steel. Now the PHMSA has waivered thickness standards so thinner pipe than the US law allows can be imported from China. We can't trust the Ogllala Aquifer to TransCanada, a foreign company that is not reputable, and to the PHMSA which is inadequate. TransCanada bullied us and other landowners into signing easement agreements using the threat of eminent domain. No landowner in his right mind agrees to a one time payment in perpetuity without the threat of eminent domain. The oil is headed for China not for US markets. The pipe is being made in China, not in the US. The land, water, and the drinking water of US citizens is being put to risk so TransCanada can make money suppying oil to China. If you want real jobs that would make a difference demand that the pipe be made out of strong US steel. The safest pipeline can only be built from the strongest steel which is made in the United States not China. The safest pipeline is located away from the Ogallala aquifer and all well-head protection areas. Contrary to TransCanada's claims, The TransCanada XL pipeline will not be the safest pipeline that could be built.

Robert MackiddAug 31 2011 01:20 PM

First, I am a shareholder of TRP. I am also a shareholder of Interpipelines which ships oilsands to Edmonton from Ft McMurray.
The USA is a" Litigious Society" and any potential damage TRP caused would mean a massive class action lawsuit. I am quite certain that TRP fully realizes the liability potential.

What I find so difficult to understand is the the major activity of the USA today is printing money, not creating jobs. This project is "shovel ready' and will cost upwards of $20B and create 10s of thousands of american jobs. with an unemployment rate of 9%+ this seems like a pretty good deal.

The flip side is that one way or another the oilsands will be delivered to foreign markets. Be that China,North Korea or the USA, it matters not to Canadians. Should this pipeline not go through one or two pipelines will go across the mountains to the Pacific and that oil will be denied to americans. Not politically but from a practical standpoint.

I would expect reasonable heads to prevail and a compromise accord that satisfies both the needs of the USA and Canada be acheived.

Jeff MNov 2 2011 01:14 PM

Do people not understand there are no less than 6 different pipelines already intersecting the aquifer under the midwest.

And some of those pipelines are nearly 50 years old. Shouldn't the concern be on aging, decrepit pipelines rather than new, better built pipelines in terms of fearing a spill?

DennisJan 10 2012 02:28 PM

The Alberta oil sands is the biggest poluter on the planet. You greedy oil barrons should be ashamed. But you are not because your greed superseeds everything. The oil industry was founded for the sole purpose of amassing wealth and no other reason. Yes you are going to say we need oil and its products,more oil comllpany lies. Now they came up with this ethical oil. (oxymoron) more oil company lies. Everything you use oil for can be made from other elements that are natural and clean. do not believe the xlpipline lies they will kill you and the enviroment. Shame on you evil greedy oil people.

John WolfJan 18 2012 12:36 PM

As a Canadian from Alberta-I am concerned that neither level of the CONServative Governments have given any intelligent thought to the fact that if you build enough pipelines to give our oil away to foreign interests-we will run out of fuel for our vehicles decades earlier than we should have!
This will result in the total collapse of the Petroleum Industry-thus the Economy! A lot of clever people amongst the Conservative Wunderkind-here and in the U.S.

Vicki FFeb 15 2012 09:20 PM

I live in Indiana. There is an onslaught of ads for XL Pipelinepaid for by superpacs for Senator Lugar.The pipeline doesn't even run thru our state yet he is spearheading campaign to get it pushed thru stating it will create 20,000 jobs for Hoosiers. What a crock. Wonder why he's so interested? Everybody who stands to make money off the pipeline, at the environments expense, is foaming at the mouth trying to get it built. If they're not taking the oil to China, which I don't believe, why don't they just build refineries where the other pipeline stops? I'm so sick of their greed and all the lies. I will keep fighting for the environment and hope alot of others will too.

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