Report: Oil Pipeline Plan Too Optimistic

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 @ 02:07 PM gHale

TransCanada underestimated the potential for spills along the pipeline it wants to build to carry tar sands oil across the Plains to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico, an engineering professor said in a report.

The $7 billion Keystone XL project, which would double the capacity of the existing Keystone pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Oklahoma and Illinois, is now under review by the U.S. State Department, which will make a decision on the matter by the end of this year.

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Neither TransCanada nor the regulators evaluating the proposed Keystone XL pipeline have properly considered the risks, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering Professor John Stansbury.

“They presented what I thought was an unrealistically optimistic picture of the impacts from the pipeline,” said Stansbury, an environmental engineer who specializes in water engineering and has been a consultant teaching the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers how to do risk assessments.

Stansbury said he decided independently to examine the Keystone XL pipeline to help decision-makers evaluate the project. His report comes from publicly available information TransCanada and federal regulators have disclosed about the project and past pipeline spills, and some of his colleagues reviewed the report. He enlisted help from the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has been critical of the project, to distribute the report.

TransCanada has promised the pipeline would be safe and reliable, and said it is subject to “comprehensive” safety regulation. The company is still reviewing Stansbury’s report, but several of his conclusions have flaws, said TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha.

“We would not put our reputation or the public at risk by doing the things that this document, released by the Friends of the Earth, suggests,” Cunha said.

TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL project will carry oil from Canada across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. TransCanada also has proposed connecting it to the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota.

The pipeline’s proposed route crosses the massive underground Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for irrigation and drinking to people in eight U.S. states.

Stansbury said TransCanada underestimated the frequency of spills on the pipeline and the severity of the worst-case scenario spills.

In examining several worst-case scenarios, he came up with much larger spill estimates than TransCanada. He also predicted there would be 91 significant spills of at least 50 barrels of oil over 50 years, not the 11 spills TransCanada predicts.

TransCanada said its estimate comes from analyzing relevant threats to the pipeline and their likelihood of happening.

“We use risk-based assessments that are industry-leading methods to quantify failure frequency,” Cunha said.

Stansbury said the failure of a pipeline valve near where the Keystone XL crosses a river could lead to a major spill. He estimated such a scenario could lead to the release of more than 160,000 barrels of oil next to the Yellowstone River or more than 140,000 barrels near the Platte River. He said that massive spills such as that are extremely unlikely, but companies need to plan for them.

Cunha said the construction methods TransCanada plans to use at river crossings, such as using heavy-walled pipe, make those locations some of the least likely to fail. He said TransCanada has a record of operating pipelines safely for more than 60 years.

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