Keystone spill prompts scrutiny of permits allowing pipelines to run faster

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The TC Energy logo is printed on a smartphone in this illustration taken December 4, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

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By Rod Nickel and Nia Williams

WINNIPEG/CALGARY (Reuters) – The largest oil spill in the 12-year history of TC Energy (NYSE:) Corp’s Keystone pipeline, discovered late on Wednesday, raises questions about the special authorization that was granted. it received 5 years ago to run at higher pressures, making it unique among US oil pipelines.

Keystone is responsible for three spills of at least a few thousand barrels in the past five years, all of which have occurred since Keystone was allowed to operate the line at higher speeds to transport more oil. This week’s 14,000-barrel spill in Kansas is sure to set off alarm bells for future pipeline development, as US regulators have stepped up oversight of pipeline construction due to the disruption. previous Keystone spills in 2017 and 2019.

All three spills are among the 20 largest crude oil accidents in the United States since 2010.

Keystone, which opened in 2010, ships more than 600,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil to the United States, serving refineries in the Midwest and U.S. Gulf, along with exporters beyond the Gulf. After decades of dependence on oil from the Middle East, most U.S. imports now come from Canada.

The pipeline had few incidents in its early years of operation, but since 2017 the number of spills has increased after TC Energy received a special permit from the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. and Pipeline USA (PHMSA) to operate at higher stress levels than other pipelines.

Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog, questioned whether that license was to blame for the serious incidents that followed.

“Even if you normalize incidents per mile and bins overflow by volume, we still see more incidents here than the industry standard,” Caram said.

TC Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

TC Energy proposed a second line called Keystone XL in 2008, but after 13 years of facing local and environmental opposition and legal battles to build it, General President Joe Biden canceled the chain’s license after taking office in January 2021.


Keystone’s accident history is similar to that of other crude oil pipelines since 2010, but the severity of the spill has worsened in recent years, a 2021 report by the Office of US Government Accountability (GAO) said.

Following the 2019 oil spill, the GAO issued a report on line problems, which prompted pipeline regulators to take a closer look at the construction process.

The GAO report notes that PHMSA has allowed TC Energy to start operating the line at 80% of what is known as the specified minimum yield strength – the point at which the steel pipes will begin to deform. No other line can work at more than 72% of that.

“I think the license in particular will be scrutinized,” said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Alliance, an advocacy group that has been against Keystone XL. “That high pressure is causing more wear and tear.”

In a June 2021 letter in response to the GAO report, TC Executive Vice President Leslie Kass said PHMSA’s 51 conditions for TC “offset any potential risks” associated with running Keystone at higher stress levels, and the GAO report notes that several safety consultants have made similar assessments.

PMSHA did not respond to a request for comment.

Dennis McConaghy, who retired from TC Energy as executive vice president of company development in 2014, when it was known as TransCanada, said running at higher speeds was worth investigating along with the error. operator or material failure may occur.

The special license comes with a variety of operating conditions, said John Stoody, vice president of government relations at the Liquid Energy Pipeline Association. Engineers consider factors such as wall thickness and steel type to determine what the system can handle and must be approved by PHMSA.

“If there are any complaints from the industry about how long the special licensing process takes. It’s an extremely rigorous process that PHMSA operates,” he said.

The three biggest Keystone leaks occurred in the fall or winter, but Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, says nothing suggests cold weather increases the likelihood. pipe leaks.

TC Energy’s McConaghy said that with activists opposed to new pipeline construction, operators have every reason to try to move as much oil as possible through existing pipelines. TC Energy recently increased the amount of oil flowing through the line to test system operation.

“The economic impetus to push that envelope will always be there,” McConaghy said. “PhMSA is up to you to determine if it’s something to be cautious about.”

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