June 21, 2013

Keystone XL pipe shuns newest leak detection technology

By Rebecca Penty and Mike Lee, Bloomberg News

(Continued from page 2)

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 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."

Keystone XL will be "built to the highest standards of any new pipeline currently constructed," Semmens said, pointing to the company's control center in Calgary that he said is the newest in the industry. "As such, the potential for a defect leading to a leak is much less than pipelines that do not meet similar standards."

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 emailed 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."

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