June 21, 2013

Keystone XL pipe shuns newest leak detection technology

By Rebecca Penty and Mike Lee, Bloomberg News

CALGARY, Alberta — TransCanada Corp., 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 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, Wash. 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 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 email.

"Leak detection is just one part of a safe pipeline," Semmens said. "The No. 1 priority is to build a pipeline that prevents leaks."

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 a 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'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.

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