TransCanada estimated 11 spills over 50 years from the Keystone XL pipeline. The existing Keystone pipeline had three times that many … in its first year. (More)

Compared to What, Part III – Keystone XL and Spills (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has looked at the Keystone XL Pipeline Project with a focus on the information that will shape the decision. Thursday we explored claims on the greenhouse gas emissions that would be caused by the pipeline extension. Yesterday we examined claims on the jobs that the pipeline extension would create. Today we call for better information standards on this and other public policy decisions.

Steel yourself

As cited in Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute report on the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, TransCanada claimed that “approximately 75% of the pipe for the US portion of the proposed project would be purchased from North American pipe manufacturing facilities.” While technically true, that statement is misleading. TransCanada have already signed contracts for 50% of the steel pipe that would be used in the project. About 40% of the pipe will be made by a Russian-owned company, Evraz, at mills in Canada. The rest will likely be made by an Indian company, WelSpun. In fact, TransCanada have already imported almost 10% of the pipe for the project from WelSpun factories in India. While WelSpun also have a plant in Arkansas, that plant uses imported steel. Most of the domestic pipe manufacturing for the project would be “final processing” – double-jointing and coating pipe made elsewhere.

So TransCanada’s claim that “approximately 75% of the pipe for the US portion of the proposed project would be purchased from North American pipe manufacturing facilities” is misleading in two ways. Most of the pipe made in “North America” will be manufactured in Canada, not the U.S, and most of the pipe “manufacturing” in the U.S. will be only finishing work. Almost none of the steel will be made in the U.S., and that’s not just a jobs problem.


The acronym GIGO was coined in the computer field, and stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. Most simply, the output from a computer operation cannot be more reliable than the data input. The GIGO acronym has since spread to other fields, and its application to the Keystone XL project is worrisome: most of the pipe will be manufactured by WelSpun, and WelSpun is under investigation for selling defective pipe made from substandard steel.

How much “garbage out” can we expect from the Keystone XL pipeline? TransCanada estimated only 11 significant spills over 50 years. Even setting aside the WelSpun pipe quality issues, that number is off by a factor of eight, according to an independent study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental engineering professor John Stansbury:

However, TransCanada made several assumptions that are highly questionable in the calculation of these frequencies. The primary questionable assumptions are: (1) TransCanada ignored historical data that represents 23 percent of historical pipeline spills, and (2) TransCanada assumed that its pipeline would be constructed so well that it would have only half as many spills as the other pipelines in service (on top of the 23 percent missing data), even though they will operate the pipeline at higher temperatures and pressures and the crude oil that will be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline will be more corrosive than the conventional crude oil transported in existing pipelines. All of these factors tend to increase spill frequency; therefore, a more realistic assessment of expected frequency of significant spills is 0.00109 spills per year per mile (from the historical data (PHMSA, 2009)) resulting in 91 major spills over a 50 year design life of the pipeline.

That’s a lot of “garbage out,” even assuming WelSpun produced top quality pipe. They don’t. In the first year of operation, the existing Keystone pipeline caused 19 spills in Canada and 14 in the U.S. – three times TransCanada’s 50-year estimate for the Keystone XL project. The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a Corrective Action Order on the existing Keystone XL pipeline, due to leaks caused by pipe expansion. According to the Global Labor Institute report:

Pipe expansions occur when low strength, low integrity, or poor quality steel is used. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 46 years of use before pipe expansions occur.

WelSpun’s use of substandard steel has also been an issue in other pipeline projects. WelSpun is currently being sued by two Kinder Morgan Energy Partner subsidiaries for fraudulent sales practices and the sale of defective steel pipe. PHMSA has ordered Boardwalk Pipeline Partners and Kinder Morgan Energy Partner to replace hundreds of pipe joints along their pipelines after an investigation revealed numerous “expansion anomalies” indicating the use of low quality steel. Approximately 80 percent of the steel Boardwalk Pipeline Partners and Kinder Morgan Energy Partner used in their pipelines was purchased from WelSpun.

“I guess there’s justice in America.”

Spills from oil pipelines are a problem, no matter where they happen. But the Keystone XL pipeline was planned to cross through especially sensitive areas like Nebraska’s Sand Hills, a region of beautiful rolling prairies. The Sand Hills are not only sensitive because of their beauty. They sit over the Ogallala Aquifer, which AgLines calls “Nebraska’s most precious resource.” That is the world’s largest aquifer system stretching from South Dakota to Texas, with as much freshwater as Lake Erie and Lake Huron combined. The aquifer is most vulnerable in the Sand Hills.

Nebraskans were pleased to hear that the Obama administration delayed the Keystone XL project, pending review the environmental analysis and hear plans for alternative pipeline routes. The Los Angeles Times asked Nebraska land owner Todd Cone for his reaction, and Cone was skeptical at first:

Cone politely asked that the entire text of the State Department announcement be read to him over the phone. Then he measured his words. “I guess there’s justice in America,” he said finally.

Compared to what?

Pipeline spills are not like the greenhouse gas emissions we discussed Thursday. Keystone XL proponents who argue the tar sands oil will likely be extracted, refined, and burned somewhere – even if the pipeline is never built – are probably correct. The greenhouse gases from that oil likely will end up in our atmosphere, whether the oil is refined and consumed in the U.S. or elsewhere. Even if that tar sands oil were not extracted, the most likely energy replacements would be slightly less-polluting other oil, or even worse-polluting coal. In terms of greenhouse gases, the “Compared to what?” question is an environmental tossup for the Keystone XL project.

But pipeline spills happen along the pipeline’s path, and the damage can usually be contained … unless the spill happens over the world’s largest freshwater aquifer. In that case, a major spill could dump toxic chemicals into the drinking water used by much of middle America. Here the “Compared to what?” question is not an environmental tossup. Don’t build an oil pipeline over an aquifer.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

Public policy should be based on reliable information: verifiable data and reasonable predictions. To be verifiable, the data must be disclosed; public policy cannot rely on proprietary secrets. To be reasonable, the predictions cannot be comparisons to speculative or wishful alternatives; they must be comparisons to the most likely alternatives to the policy in question. Without that, We the People cannot be the citizens Jefferson imagined … and representative government cannot work.


Happy Saturday