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Anthony Swift’s Blog

The Keystone tar sands pipeline becomes the newest hazardous liquid pipeline to be deemed an immediate threat to public safety by regulators

Anthony Swift

Posted June 6, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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On Friday, federal regulators made an unprecedented decision when they issued TransCanada with a Corrective Action Order (CAO) after determining that the Keystone tar sands pipeline was an imminent threat to life, property and the environment. This enforcement action has never been taken on such a new pipeline. To put this finding in perspective, consider this – over the last twenty five years, regulators have issued only forty-eight CAOs for the entire 170,000 mile U.S. hazardous liquid pipeline system. On average, these pipelines were more than forty-five years old when they were issued a CAO. Before the Keystone tar sands pipeline, which is still less than a year old, the newest pipeline to be deemed an immediate threat to public safety was twenty five years old. Federal pipeline safety regulators at the Department of Transportation (DOT) have initiated a technical review of the Keystone pipeline as part of the CAO to determine what is going wrong with the pipeline with reports due to come out this summer.

The State Department, which approved the Keystone pipeline without a DOT review of the safety of raw tar sands pipelines, shouldn’t repeat that mistake with Keystone XL- a bigger version of Keystone currently routed through the Ogallala Aquifer. Rather than fast tracking the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS), the State Department should extend the comment period, hold public hearings and allow pipeline safety regulators to determine how to build and operate tar sands pipelines safely.

On Sunday, regulators at DOT allowed the Keystone pipeline to restart under restricted conditions. This means that TransCanada fulfilled three of the fourteen conditions of the CAO. These include the requirements that TransCanada 1) submit a written re-start plan to PHMSA; 2) repair the pipeline at spill sites and test the failed pipe components; and 3) provide adequate staffing, monitoring and patrolling at pump stations “during the restart to ensure that no leaks or failures occur at any pump station.” Aside from raising the question of why regulators don’t require adequate staffing, monitoring and patrolling at pump stations to prevent leaks and failures at ALL times, these initial conditions are not the major substance of the CAO.  That is in the following requirements:

  1. By July 18th, 2011, TransCanada must provide pipeline regulators with a report documenting all issues and incidents on the Keystone since it began operation.
  2. By August 2nd, 2011, TransCanada must compile all available data on small diameter pipeline and components, doing a root cause failure analysis
  3. By September 1st, 2011, TransCanada must submit a remedial work plan that verifies the integrity of the pipeline and addresses all factors known or suspected to have contributed to Keystone’s twelve spills and any other conditions that threaten the integrity of the pipeline.

Based on the information that these reports bring to light, federal regulators may determine new measures are necessary to ensure that Keystone can be operated safely. This information, and the expertise of our federal pipeline regulators, is highly relevant to the review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Given that the properties of hot raw tar sands, or diluted bitumen, increase the risks of internal corrosion, abrasion and stress corrosion cracking as the pipeline gets older, problems this early in Keystone’s history spell potential disaster in the future. Unfortunately, while remedial action is necessary for Keystone, it is too late to rebuild that pipeline. It is not too late for Keystone XL.

Given new safety concerns with tars sands pipelines like Keystone XL, landowners who live on its right-of-way deserve the time to comment on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) and the opportunity to have public hearings. Farmers who rely on the Ogallala Aquifer for water deserve to have their requests for an alternate route for Keystone XL taken seriously by the State Department. First responders need to be prepared for the risks they’ll encounter in the event of a diluted bitumen spill. The American public, a quarter million of whom have asked for additional environmental review and more time to comment on the Keystone XL SDEIS, deserve to know their government is doing proper due diligence on their behalf.

 It’s time to put the rubber stamp down and wait for the facts to come in.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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