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Keystone XL Will Not Use Advanced Leak Detection

By Stephen Lacey, Think Progress

Even after causing more than a dozen spills in 2011 from its newest tar sands pipeline — including a six story “geyser” of crude — Canadian energy developer TransCanada claimed its planned Keystone XL pipeline would “exceed” safety standards.

But according to a new investigation of TransCanada’s development plans, the company does not plan to use advanced spill prevention technologies on a section of pipeline that would cross an underground reservoir providing nearly 30 percent of America’s irrigation water.

InsideClimate News reported this week that TransCanada would only use standard leak detection technologies across a 19-mile stretch of the pristine Ogallala Aquifer, making bigger leaks more likely:

InsideClimate News reported that TransCanada would only use standard leak detection technologies across a 19-mile stretch of the pristine Ogallala Aquifer, making bigger leaks more likely.
Credit: Great Lakes Tar Sands Pipelines

The leak detection technology that will be used on the Keystone XL, for instance, is standard for the nation’s crude oil pipelines and rarely detects leaks smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline’s flow. The Keystone will have a capacity of 29 million gallons per day—so a spill would have to reach 294,000 gallons per day to trigger its leak detection technology.

The Keystone XL also won’t get two other safeguards found on the 19-mile stretch of the pipeline over Austin’s aquifer: a concrete cap that protects the Longhorn from construction-related punctures, and daily aerial or foot patrols to check for tiny spills that might seep to the surface.

Experts interviewed by InsideClimate News estimate it would cost less than $10 million—roughly 0.2 percent of the Keystone’s $5.3 billion budget—to add external sensor cables, a concrete cap and extra patrols to the 20 miles of the pipeline in Nebraska where a spill would be most disastrous. The water table in that area lies less than 20 feet below the surface and provides ranchers with a steady supply of fresh water.

Keystone XL is a proposed 1,200 mile pipeline that would carry tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast for sale into the global market. The pipeline has been a central target of environmental groups because of concerns about its impact on local water quality and contribution to global warming.

Tar sands crude requires an enormous amount of energy and water to mine and process — making it up to 80 percent more carbon-intensive than conventional crude. NASA climatologist James Hansen calls development of tar sands “game over” for the climate.

Local worries about the impact of a tar sands oil spill have also sparked a movement in Nebraska banding environmentalists, farmers, and other landowners together in an effort to stop the project:

Much of the opposition to the Keystone XL has focused on the type of oil it would carry: Bitumen is a particularly heavy form of crude oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands region. It is so thick that it can’t flow through pipelines until it’s diluted with liquid chemicals to form what’s known as diluted bitumen or “dilbit.”

The same federal standards that apply to gasoline and crude oil pipelines also apply to pipelines carrying dilbit—even though dilbit doesn’t behave like conventional crude oil when it spills into water.

The proposed 1,200-mile pipeline would carry tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast for sale into the global market. The pipeline has been a central target of environmental groups because of concerns about its impact on local water quality and contribution to global warming.
Credit: flickr/RayBodden

The nation’s first major dilbit spill occurred in July 2010, when a ruptured pipeline released a million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River. As the light, liquid chemicals in dilbit began evaporating, the heavy bitumen sank into the river. Nearly two and a half years later, Enbridge Inc., the Canadian company that owns the ruptured pipeline, is still struggling to clean up the Kalamazoo. The current cost of clean up exceeds $800 million.

The Enbridge accident showed what happens when dilbit spills into a river. But little is known about how dilbit might behave in an aquifer, said Wayne Woldt, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who studies groundwater management.

Once an aquifer is contaminated, it’s virtually impossible to restore it to its pristine condition, Woldt said. The extent of damage would depend on the size of the spill and on how the dilbit moves within the aquifer.

In January, concerns about a possible spill increased after a pipeline inspector working on TransCanada’s original Keystone project issued a warning about the company’s record on quality:

What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.

I shared these concerns with my bosses, who communicated them to the bigwigs at TransCanada, but nothing changed. TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields.

Environmentalists and climate advocates have made killing Keystone XL their top priority for the beginning of President Obama’s second term.

Last month, organized a rally outside the White House to remind the Administration that people were still paying close attention to the issue. And in February, the Sierra Club,, and other environmental groups will hold a much bigger demonstration in Washington, likely around the time that the President will be forced to approve or deny the controversial project.

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress.


By Marjorie Wesche (Gainesville 32601)
on January 3rd, 2013

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; it seems to be in our DNA. We are observing climate destabilization as it is happening , caused by each and all of us. Our PROBLEM is global warming , accelerating frequency and intensity of extreme weather events traceable to jet stream and other effects of ocean warming and arctic melting, and resulting destruction from droughts, floods, fires, storms, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. The effects are increasingly seen in food production, health, damage to species and to the intricate web of life on which our physical and social well-being depends. Average world temperatures are already .8 C higher than 130 years ago with a further .8 C rise in the pipeline, and we’re headed for another 4 C plus by 2100;  the 10 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since the mid-90s. The CAUSE is human activity amplified by our ever increasing numbers and consumption patterns that increase our energy use. And, while it is possible for 9 billion people to live at a high standard on renewable energy (read about Mark Jacobson’s work in Scientific American), we love cheap oil, gas and readily available coal, which lead to massive pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel burning, whose warming effects are amplified by water vapour. We’re happy to be duped by entrenched interests to think that we can consume merrily on, and that fossil fuels are the only source of energy. There is a SOLUTION that can change our collective behaviour. It is a rising CARBON POLLUTION TAX, such as Norway and some other countries and jurisdictions have, to give renewables a level playing field and encourage energy conservation. Pollution tax revenues should be returned directly to households and green energy investments. Tax rebates will allow people to afford rising fossil fuel prices as we adapt to a saner reality. ONLY IF WE ACT SOON AND STRONGLY, can we gradually stabilize the warming and related climatic responses and mitigate the catastrophic damage climatologists and biologists see for future living conditions on the planet. But folks, IT IS CLEAR THAT GOVERNMENT WILL NOT LEAD THE NEEDED CHANGE; WE THE PEOPLE HAVE TO INFORM OURSELVES AND DEMAND RESPONSIBLE SOLUTIONS FOR OUR CHILDREN AND THEIRS. So let’s saddle up!

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