June 21, 2013

Keystone XL pipe shuns newest leak detection technology

By Rebecca Penty and Mike Lee, Bloomberg News

(Continued from page 1)

"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's Pegasus line in Arkansas, and the 2010 rupture of an Enbridge Inc. line in Marshall, Mich. 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 needs 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 device the size of a garbage can that's mounted on the outside of a helicopter. The sensor, made by Synodon Inc. 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., which makes the balls, says their acoustic systems can spot leaks as small as 0.03 gallons a minute.

The technology is gaining traction as companies including Enbridge start using it on their systems, said Jamie Paulson, chairman of Calgary-based Pure.

"The regulatory requirements are not there yet but we are seeing increased interest for the main pipeline operators to verify the integrity of their pipelines," Paulson said.

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.

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