By John Kemp
LONDON Jan 29 TransCanada has promised
to adhere to 57 special safety conditions, and in the event of
an accidental oil spill from its Keystone XL pipeline would be
responsible for all cleanup costs, Nebraska Governor Dave
Heineman promised this month when he approved the company's
revised route through the state.
Responding to concerns about the possibility of catastrophic
pollution, the pipeline has been re-routed to avoid the
environmentally sensitive Sand Hills, though it still crosses
parts of the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer.
TransCanada has agreed to more rigorous pipeline design,
manufacturing, construction, operational and maintenance
standards, according to Heineman, and will be required to
provide evidence it has at least $200 million in third-party
liability insurance to cover the cost of cleaning up any spill
in the state.
The new route and safety commitments are unlikely to satisfy
environmental groups campaigning against the pipeline, for whom
it has become a powerful symbol of the wider struggle between
fossil fuels and clean technology.
"The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a lynchpin enabling
the climate intensive tar sands industry to grow unimpeded,"
according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "If
Keystone is approved, we're locking in several more decades of
fossil fuels and higher levels of carbon dioxide and global
warming," NRDC warns.
Environmentalists continue to press President Barack Obama
to refuse permission to construct the pipeline across the
U.S.-Canadian border, in an attempt to deprive Canada's oil
sands industry of a market and try to shut it down.
There is nothing more TransCanada can do to allay the
concerns of its most trenchant critics. But the high-profile
campaign against Keystone and recent pipeline incidents have put
the safety record of America's pipeline operators under the
Transporting natural gas and hazardous liquids by pipeline
is relative safe compared with other modes of transportation,
according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The United States has 400,000 miles of transmission
pipelines carrying natural gas and hazardous liquids like crude,
across the country, in addition to 250,000 miles of gas and
liquids field-gathering pipelines, and 2 million miles of
distribution lines delivering gas to end users.
Between 2007 and 2011, pipelines accounted for 14 fatalities
per year, including 2 per year on the bulk transmission network.
In comparison, 3,675 people were killed in accidents involving
trucks, and 730 were killed by the railroads, in 2010, according
to GAO ("Better Data and Guidance Needed to Improve Pipeline
Operator Incident Response" Jan 2013).
Nonetheless, when pipelines leak or rupture, the results can
In December, a natural gas transmission pipeline exploded at
Sissonville, West Virginia, destroying several homes and melting
a section of interstate highway.
In September 2010, a gas pipeline explosion killed 8 people
and destroyed more than 100 homes in San Bruno, California, a
suburb of San Francisco.
In July 2010, pipeline operator Enbridge pumped
843,000 gallons (20,000 barrels) of heavy bituminous Canadian
crude into wetlands near Marshall in Michigan, polluting the
Kalamazoo river, after a corroded section of 30-inch diameter
pipe in the Lakehead System (Line 6B) ruptured suddenly.
Enbridge suffered an even bigger leak on another line (Line
3) in 1991, spilling 1.7 million gallons of crude near Grand
Rapids in Michigan.
Interstate gas and oil pipelines are regulated by the
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
But the agency's inspection system and oversight of Enbridge
were strongly criticised by accident investigators from the
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following the
PHMSA "failed to pursue findings from previous inspections
and did not require Enbridge to excavate pipeline segments with
injurious crack defects" according to the official accident
report ("Pipeline Accident Report: Hazardous Liquid Pipeline
Rupture and Release, Marshall, Michigan" Jul 2012).
The Code of Federal Regulations "does not provide clear
requirements regarding when to repair and when to remediate
pipeline defects", the investigators concluded. "Enbridge's
delayed reporting ... by more than 460 days indicates that
Enbridge's interpretation of the current regulation delayed the
repair of the pipeline."
Under the current rules, PHMSA requires operators to respond
to incidents in a "prompt and effective manner." Operators must
meet minimum standards for leak detection and emergency response
on all sections of line, and must conduct additional risk
assessments and have mitigation plans for populated or
environmentally sensitive "high-consequence areas."
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science
and Transportation after the Sissonville explosion, GAO Director
Susan Fleming recommended the agency collect better incident
data, especially on response times, and be more active in
sharing best practice and guidance with operators.
The question of whether to replace manually operated valves
with automated ones has divided the industry and regulators.
In most incidents, the worst damage is done when the
pipeline ruptures. But the faster that section of line can be
isolated and shutdown the less the danger of secondary fires and
Following the San Bruno disaster, NTSB recommended automated
valves should be required on all natural gas pipelines in all
high-consequence populated areas.
Kinder Morgan has installed automated valves at 683 out of
832 locations on its natural gas pipeline system and plans to
automate the rest within the next few years. "Automatic-shutoff
valves, as opposed to remote control valves, were chosen because
they reduce the potential for human error when making decisions
to close valves," the company told GAO.
"The biggest concern of using automatic-shutoff valves is
the potential for accidental closures, but (Kinder Morgan
officials) believe they have developed a procedure for managing
the pressure-sensing system that effectively adapts to pressure
and flow change and minimises or eliminates these types of
Other operators have preferred a case-by-case,
risk-management approach, that seeks to balance the benefits of
faster response times (reducing spill volumes) against the costs
of accidental closures (interrupting service and causing safety
issues) as well as the cost of equipment (estimated at up to
$250,000 for each valve on a gas line and $500,000 for a valve
on a liquids line).
Some operators insist it is safer to control shutdowns from
a central control room. But in the Marshall/Kalamazoo spill,
Enbridge's control room operators twice fired up the pumps and
tried to restart the pipeline because they ignored multiple
alarm systems and misinterpreted signs of a leak as a harmless
bubble (column separation) in the pipe.
The pipe continued to spew tarry crude into local waterways
for 17 hours as operators ignored company procedures that
required them to shut down the line within 10 minutes if they
could not resolve the cause of operational alarms and rule out a
leak, and shut the line immediately if three or more alarms went
"There was no evidence that any member of the control centre
staff sought to obtain information from anyone in the Marshall
vicinity to verify the presence of a leak," NTSB wrote. Instead
controllers convinced themselves the alarms were faulty and kept
trying to boost the pressure within the line.
Ironically, the 10-minute rule had been introduced following
the company's earlier disastrous spill at Grand Rapids. But
"Enbridge control centre staff had developed a culture that
accepted not adhering to the procedures," NTSB concluded.
If Keystone and other crude oil pipelines are to be routed
across populated and environmentally sensitive areas, and the
industry is to avoid a political backlash, it is essential the
highest safety standards are imposed and maintained.
Operator errors and inadequate training have been identified
by NTSB as contributory factors to both the Marshall and San
Bruno incidents. Better training, better control systems, and
the same crew resource management (CRM) approach federal
regulators require for pilots, cabin crew, and maritime officers
should be mandated for pipeline operators.
Safety is part of the social licence to operate for pipeline
companies. Persistent concerns about PHMSA's performance must be
addressed. And all pipeline operators must be held to, and
rigorously enforce, a safety culture, which inspects lines
intensively, acts on inspection reports, and shuts trunk lines
at the first sign of abnormal operating conditions.