TransCanada Corp. (TRP), which says Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built, isn’t planning to use infrared sensors or fiber-optic cables to detect spills along the system’s 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) path to Texas refineries from fields in Alberta.
Pipeline companies have been slow to adopt new leak detection technology, including infrared equipment on helicopters flying 80 miles an hour or acoustic sensors that can identify the sound of oil seeping from a pinhole-sized opening. Instead of tools that can find even the smallest leaks, TransCanada will search for spills using software-based methods and traditional flyovers and surveys.
As pipelines multiply across North America to carry booming supplies of oil and natural gas, a series of recent spills and explosions are raising concerns about the safety of the conduits, including Keystone XL, which is awaiting U.S. government approval.
“There are lots of things engineering-wise that are possible, that the industry doesn’t do,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a fuel-transportation safety advocacy group in Bellingham, Washington. As pipeline executives say they’re changing their industry’s culture to tolerate zero incidents, companies aren’t spending on technology to catch even pinhole-sized leaks that can turn into bigger problems, Weimer said.
Though the so-called external leak detection tools have been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, the Calgary-based company says they’re impractical for the entire project. At the EPA’s request, TransCanada is studying whether to add the systems in sensitive environmental areas, Grady Semmens, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Keystone XL is part of an additional 4.7 million barrels a day of new U.S. oil pipeline capacity expected to be built during the next two years, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, a Washington-based industry group. About 19.2 million barrels of crude are transported each day in the U.S.
Pipelines spilled an average of 112,569 barrels per year in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012, a 3.5 percent increase from the previous five-year period, according to U.S. Transportation Department figures compiled by Bloomberg.
The department is studying leak detection as it considers new rules to improve safety. Equipment available to spot spills more quickly would have cut 75 percent off the estimated $1.7 billion toll in property damage caused by major incidents on oil lines from 2001 to 2011, consultants said in a December report prepared for the department.
The figure doesn’t include cleanup costs in environmentally sensitive areas, fines, lost life and the potentially much bigger financial impact to operators related to investor concerns.
Leak-detection technology consists of internal and external systems. Much of the newest technology tends to be for external monitors that look for leaks outside the pipeline, such as the infrared sensors and fiber-optic cables.
Internal systems, most often employed by operators, rely on computer-based tools to remotely analyze flow data transmitted every few seconds by sensors along the conduit. Operators using software-based systems are alerted if pressure drops, indicating a possible leak.
Keystone XL would have to be spilling more than 12,000 barrels a day — or 1.5 percent of its 830,000 barrel capacity – - before its currently planned internal spill-detection systems would trigger an alarm, according to the U.S. State Department, which is reviewing the proposal. In comparison, BP Plc (BP/)’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico was leaking at an estimated rate of about 53,000 barrels a day, according to a U.S. Interior Department report.
“You’re talking about a system that isn’t going to be able to detect a leak that’s greater than half a million gallons a day,” said Anthony Swift, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group in Washington.
The company’s leak detection specialist would be able to spot leaks “well below” the 1.5 percent threshold by analyzing trends in data collected over a period in time, said Vern Meier, vice president of pipeline safety and compliance at the company.
TransCanada is seeking U.S. approval for Keystone XL amid heightened regulatory scrutiny following spills such as the 5,000 barrels leaked in March by Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM).’s Pegasus line in Arkansas, and the 2010 rupture of an Enbridge Inc (ENB). line in Marshall, Michigan.
Enbridge, which spilled more than 20,000 barrels of heavy oil from Canada into a branch of the Kalamazoo River, boosted its estimate of cleanup costs to nearly $1 billion earlier this year, a figure that doesn’t include fines.
Keystone XL would carry crude from the oil sands to supply U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. TransCanada requires a presidential permit to build the $5.3 billion northern portion of the line because it crosses an international border.
It would cost TransCanada an additional $705,000 to add a fiber-optic cable to the parts of Keystone XL that may affect ecologically sensitive areas, drinking water, or populated regions, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg. The line has 141 miles in high consequence areas, according to the State Department, and the cable costs about $5,000 a mile, the December Transportation Department report estimates.
“This will be the safest pipeline that has ever been built in the United States,” Russ Girling, TransCanada’s CEO, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television that aired June 2.
Among sensitive new technologies to test for leaks is a 200-pound (90-kilogram) device the size of a garbage can that’s mounted on the outside of a helicopter. The sensor, made by Synodon Inc (SYD). in Edmonton, Canada, detects oil vapors in the infrared rays of sunlight to find leaks flowing at rates below 10 barrels a day, according to the company.
Pipeline operators also are considering using aluminum balls that flow along the conduit with oil or gas, listening for leaks. Pure Technologies Ltd (PUR). of Calgary, which makes the balls, says their acoustic systems can spot leaks as small as 0.03 gallons a minute.
In its original comments on a State Department assessment of Keystone XL, the EPA recommended TransCanada install some of the latest leak detection technology. In a later report, the State Department questioned the reliability of the gear for the entire length of the line, noting its high cost and variable effectiveness.
“Many of the technologies out there haven’t been deployed on that scale of system with the complexities that the type of project presents,” TransCanada’s Meier said.
The Association of Oil Pipe Lines has warned that any new rules inspired by the study may force the adoption of unproven technologies. It cited flaws in the report, which it said was based on vendor claims and not operator experience.
Several external leak detection technologies produce false alarms, said John Stoody, a spokesman for the association.
“People start tuning out false positives until the one time in 100 that it’s real,” Stoody said.
Internal systems such as the one planned for Keystone XL have a spotty record catching leaks, according to the Transportation Department’s report, prepared by the engineering firm Kiefner & Associates Inc., of Worthington, Ohio. Members of the public reported 23 percent of the 197 oil and liquids pipeline leaks between January 2010 and July 2012, according to the study, compared to 17 percent identified by the pipeline companies.
Oil identified last week on the surface of the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia was detected during maintenance work, according to operator Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP (KMP) of Houston, the biggest U.S. pipeline company. The leak, estimated at less than 6 barrels by Kinder Morgan two days after it was discovered, was missed by the line’s internal systems.
“It likely was a very slow leak, so we didn’t have any alarms going off to suggest there was a problem,” said Andy Galarnyk, a Kinder Morgan spokesman. Galarnyk couldn’t immediately say whether external tools would have caught it earlier.
The average pipeline company would probably save as much as $1.1 million a year by using external monitors in heavily populated or environmentally sensitive “high consequence areas,” making it cost effective to install systems in those places, the Transportation Department report concluded.
Even the most expensive systems could make sense at river crossings or in towns, the study found. Liquid-sensing cables can cost as much as $50,000 a mile, or $20 million for an average 400-mile line, compared with $100,000 for an internal computer-based system.
New regulations may be needed to force operators to adopt additional tools, according to the study.
Even without the most technologically sensitive tools to detect leaks, the risk of a spill on Keystone XL will be far less than on existing pipelines that lack leak detection systems, automated valves and good quality steel and coatings, Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust said.
“Clearly we’ve got millions of miles of old pipelines in the ground that are riskier than these new ones they’re putting in,” Weimer said. “What they’re doing now is better than what’s been in the ground for 50 years.”
Emily Mir, Kinder Morgan’s manager of corporate communications, deferred comment on leak detection to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.
Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude, is testing performance claims on new technology before considering its adoption, said Ray Philipenko, senior manager for leak detection at the company. Enbridge is building a research center in Edmonton, Alberta, that will simulate leaks on a 40-foot-long pipeline to test how well external tools, including fiber-optic cables and vapor sensing tubes, detect the oil, Philipenko said.
The Transportation Department must give Congress a one-year review period following its December report before moving forward on new rules. Leak detection is “crucial to pipeline safety,” Cynthia Quarterman, head of the department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said in an e-mailed statement.
Any regulations should focus on the most environmentally sensitive areas along pipelines, where spill cleanup costs are the highest, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the consulting engineering company Accufacts Inc. in Redmond, Washington.
A billion dollars used to seem like a lot of money, Kuprewicz said. “If you have a rupture in the wrong place, you can go through that in a heartbeat.”