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Keystone XL Pipeline Safety Standards Not as Rigorous as They Seem

Research by NRDC shows that only 12 of the 57 conditions set by federal regulators differ from the minimum standards already required for pipeline safety.

Sep 19, 2011
(Page 2 of 3 )
Pipeline construction

Hill, the PHMSA spokesman, offered five examples of conditions that he said substantially boost the pipeline's safety. One ensures that the metal used to build the pipeline will be tracked from the production process to its on-site delivery. Another makes the pipeline subject to more stringent pressure testing before installation, and a third requires a TransCanada senior executive to certify that pipeline design, construction and maintenance plans meet all conditions.

Diluted Bitumen Needs Study

The NRDC, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and other organizations maintain that safety standards for Keystone XL won't be adequate until the State Department commits to conducting a study that specifically examines what kind of wear and tear diluted bitumen harvested from mines in Alberta actually has on steel pipelines.

Diluted bitumen—also called oil sands or tar sands oil—is a raw and thick form of heavy crude that is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil. Pumping it at a high temperature and high pressure for long distances is a relatively new and untested venture, Swift said.

TransCanada says the crude oils transported by the Keystone system "are not unique."  "[They] are similar to those already being transported and processed by other pipelines and refineries across the United States," said Cunha, the company spokesman. "That includes oil from California, Venezuela and Mexico."

The head of PHMSA, Cynthia Quarterman, testified at a June congressional hearing that her agency has not studied the risks of oil sands pipelines.

A recent article in The New York Times  documents how chronic understaffing and underfunding at PHMSA has left too much regulatory control to the companies that operate the estimated 167,000 miles of hazardous-liquid pipelines snaking throughout the country's underbelly.

"We have to keep in mind that our pipeline regulators are not aware of the risk these pipelines pose," Swift said. "It's like a doctor prescribing medication for a condition he hasn’t yet diagnosed."

Will a Study Ever Happen?

On Capitol Hill, three bills—a pair of Democratic measures in the Senate and one bipartisan initiative in the House—would give federal regulators a bigger hammer in preventing pipeline accidents. Two of those measures require PHMSA to study whether current regulations are sufficient for pipelines that transport diluted bitumen. The results of the study would be delivered to Congress.

However, those bills are on hold while Congress wrestles with other issues. Even if they become law, the studies are likely long-term undertakings. By the end of the year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to deliver a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether the Keystone XL can cross into the United States. And TransCanada is prepared to start construction as soon as the project is greenlighted.

None of the State Department's three environmental evaluations of the pipeline has called for research to examine the impact of diluted bitumen on oil pipelines. Review of the project is now entering its fourth year.

Earlier this year, NRDC and other watchdog groups collaborated on a study detailing the potential harm caused by transporting diluted bitumen harvested from the tar sands. They found that increased heat and pressure are required to move the thick oil through pipelines, and that it's difficult to clean up after a spill.  

Researchers also pointed out that diluted bitumen can weaken pipelines and make them susceptible to breaking during pressure spikes because its chemical composition is different from conventional oil. In addition, they found that quartz sand and other solid material in diluted bitumen basically sandblast pipe interiors.

"The State Department is saying it doesn’t need to do a study because Keystone XL will be safer than any pipeline built in the United States," Swift said. "That's why we're concerned. In a lot of respects, the State Department is taking TransCanada’s assertions at face value."

Would a Waiver Compromise Safety?

Swift and numerous other pipeline opponents are paying close attention to the 57 conditions because TransCanada has said that it is likely to parlay its compliance with them into an application to PHMSA for a safety waiver.

A waiver—or "special permit" as the government now calls it—would let the Keystone XL operate at a higher pressure than current federal standards allow for such an oil pipeline. Those pressure standards are set based on the strength and thickness of a pipe's steel.

Last year TransCanada withdrew a request for a waiver that would have allowed Keystone XL to operate at 1440 psi (pound-force per square inch) instead of 1308 psi, said Cunha, the company spokesman. The latter figure is the maximum amount of pressure a pipeline with Keystone XL’s specifications can handle under existing federal standards.

But the company indicated in a news release that it might again pursue the waiver for higher pressure.

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