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The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline leak detection system would have likely missed the 63,000 gallon Norman Wells pipeline spill

Anthony Swift

Posted June 10, 2011

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TransCanada has admitted that Keystone XL’s real time leak detection system will not detect pinhole leaks and can’t be relied upon to detect leaks smaller than about 700,000 gallons a day. Despite this significant shortcoming, the only route that the State Department has seriously considered for Keystone XL would take it through the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer, our nation’s largest underground water source. Enbridge’s recent 63,000 gallon spill on its Norman Wells pipeline in Canada provides an indication of the types of leaks that can go undetected for weeks on pipelines like Keystone XL that rely on conventional leak detection systems to identify leaks. What is really surprising about the Enbridge spill is that 63,000 gallons of oil leaked from a hole in the pipeline that was “about the size of a pinhole.” The Enbridge spill shows what a big deal a small leak can be.

A spill on Keystone XL in the Ogallala Aquifer would be far worse. Keystone XL would be an 830,000 bpd tar sands pipeline placed underground, actually running through the Ogallala Aquifer itself in many places. The Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) for Keystone XL states that the water conductivity - or the rate that water moves through the soil – in the Ogallala Aquifer can be as high as one hundred feet per day. This proves a substantial point, as the SDEIS concedes Keystone XL does not have the technology to detect a single leak that is less than 1.5 - 2% of the pipeline’s flow-rate in real-time. It also mentions that a pinhole leak could go on for weeks before discovery.

You can imagine the level of contamination that would occur if a similar situation occurred on Keystone XL in the Ogallala Aquifer – an undiscovered three week spill could contaminate a large three dimensional chunk of the Ogallala Aquifer nearly half a mile long. And responders will not be able to simply remove the contaminated soil – they will have to pump contaminated water out, which will draw more water into the area of the contamination. In short, a Keystone XL tar sands spill in the Ogallala Aquifer would be a disaster.

The SDEIS for Keystone XL states that several small leaks on the Keystone XL pipeline could leak as much as five percent of its capacity, or 1.7 million gallons a day, without triggering its leak detection system. TransCanada employees will not walk the pipeline route to identify these types of spills – the company will not send people out to do ground patrols unless they already know there’s a spill. TransCanada will have aerial flyover once every three weeks – just like the Enbridge flyovers that missed the Norman Wells pipeline leak.

The last line of defense will be landowners and nearby residents themselves, the ones that identified the 840,000 gallon Enbridge Kalamazoo tar sands spill, the 21,000 gallon Keystone I spill and the latest 63,000 gallon Normal Wells spill. The same landowners who aren’t being informed of the diluents used in raw tar sands, who were only given 45 days during spring planting season to comment on the SDEIS, and who thus far have been deprived the opportunity of hearings to discuss the SDEIS with decisions makers before the environmental review process has been finalized.  

If the officials at the State Department and regulators at the Department of Transportation are waiting for the right time to take these concerns seriously, now would be good.

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Jeff RobbinsJun 14 2011 04:41 PM

Utilizing pipelines to transport petro-chemicals is a reality in our world today. One of the issues the pipeline industry faces is being able to reliably and timely detect leaks.
The technology most commonly utilized today is an algorithmic system (generally referred to as "Mass Balance") which in very basic terms utilizes PL flow meters to detect drops in pressure and flow. The two big issues with this type of system are: 1). The time it takes to detect and then alarm a potential leak is too long & 2) the size of the hole has to be such that 5% to often 10% of the pipelines flow volume (usually expressed in GPM) must be escaping through the leak before it is large enough to be detected.
There is a company in Brazil ( which has developed a sonic leak detection system, when used in conjunction with a "mass balance" system is able to detect leaks in a matter of seconds (at the speed of sound), can locate the leak, and has the ability to detect significantly smaller leaks than "mass balance" alone can detect.
Would be happy to speak with you about it.

Walter KnoblachJul 5 2011 05:12 AM

From the technical side, there exists a proven technology for more than 3 decades. It is exactly about what is needed here since LEOS detects pinhole size leaks in the very early stage. As for the Norman wells spill, the alert would have come after less than 1 gallon - giving a reduction in spill size by a factor of 60000. It's available and just needs to be installed with the pipeline - of course not for free .-)

Ann RogersAug 30 2011 03:13 PM

The acts of destroying the Boreal Forest, the wildlife, and poisoning the air and groundwater with the waste left from extracting this toxic mess seems to be missing from explanations of why the pipeline should happen. It is not JUST about whether the pipeline itself will leak, but how it affects everything from start to finish. It seems to me that the people who are in favor of this have tunnel vision. And being a believer of God and creation, I wonder how people who support this can say they believe in a Being greater than themselves, yet can support the complete destruction that fossil fuels produce. It reminds me of the song "In The Year 2525." If God is trying to tell us something, I would imagine that it would not be about money but about the things that He created and what is being done to them. When I see pictures of the remains of the forests, mountaintops, and the ocean, I feel profound sadness. I am sure that God does also.

Ann ChontosAug 31 2011 09:35 AM

I couldn't have said it better myself, Ann R.
Thanks for standing up for the earth and its unbelievable natural beauty!
A path of the heart is a shared path.
It will be great to see antiquated fossil fuels give way to new, exciting, clean, alternative energies and jobs.
Who wants to make our planet in to another Mars?
Not me.
Ann C.

ElizabethAug 31 2011 10:08 AM

Jeff Robbins:

"Utilizing pipelines to transport petro-chemicals is a reality in our world today. "

No, it is NOT "a reality"! It is a human contrivance, and we can do it or not do it!

Please do not use fallacious arguments -- implying that we must all ACCEPT your premise as fact.

Realities are things like, oh,.. hurricanes?

ElizabethAug 31 2011 10:14 AM

Walter K.

"It's available and just needs to be installed with the pipeline - of course not for free .-)"

You are not by any chance thinking that these people CARE whether that pipeline leaks oil that ruins the land and leaches into the aquifer, are you? : )

Any American who has the time and money should be in D.C. right now, standing in the street in front of the White House, telling the President to NOT allow this to occur. It is a "disaster in progress," and its progress needs to be stopped!

Dustin Jan 5 2012 02:11 PM

Krohne's PipePatrol leak detection system can detect pinhole leaks......

The technology is our there.

Don BloomMar 17 2012 11:17 AM

believe it or not, there are leak detection softwares that are capable of detecting leaks under one percent. I have been in the Pipeline Leak detection business for over 25 years, and can definitely say that a good mass balance software using data from accurate flow meters and temperature sensors can rffectively protect this pipeline.

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