Editor's Note: This story has been updated with response from TransCanada.
A consumer advocacy group says it has documented more than 100 excavations of potential construction problems across a 250-mile stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline’s Texas portion, raising questions about the integrity of one of the the most controversial crude oil transportation projects in recent history, which stretches below more than 600 rivers and streams in the state.
The segment of the Keystone XL pipeline that will pipe crude oil from Cushing, Okla., to the oil refineries in Texas’ Gulf Coast is nearly complete, and the Canadian energy company Transcanada says the extension will come online this year or early next. Unlike the hotly contested northern segment of the pipeline, which connects Oklahoma to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, the southern section doesn’t require federal approval because it does not cross any international boundaries.
But with its report, the group, Public Citizen, is calling for more scrutiny over the southern leg's construction. On top of calls for more testing of the pipeline, the report asks federal regulators to review TransCanada’s construction records, and to strengthen inspection requirements. Public Citizen also says that Congress should hold oversight hearings to make sure regulators follow recommendations.
“This is one of those instances in which we can’t afford to be wrong,” said Tom "Smitty" Smith, who directs the group’s Texas chapter. “The consequences of a failure could be enormous.”
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata dismissed the report as "an amalgamation of subjects we have dealt with and responded to in the past."
"If you use more stringent measures to find anomalies, as we are doing, you are going to find more anomalies," Sheremata said. "Making sure that each weld, each section of pipeline and all of the facilities are built to the higher standards we have agreed to is what the public would expect of a responsible company."
In promotional materials, TransCanada declares that Keystone will be "the safest pipeline ever built."
"There is no advantage to TransCanada or any energy transportation company to operate assets that are inefficient, compromise public safety or endanger the environment," the company's website says.
Compared with train and truck traffic, pipelines are generally seen as the safest way for transporting fuels. Rail transport has drawn increasing scrutiny since last July, when a tanker train carrying crude oil exploded, killing 47 people in a Quebec town. More recently — and closer to Texas — a 90-car train carrying North Dakota crude derailed on Friday in western Alabama, triggering an explosion and fire that burned over much of the weekend. (No one was reported injured.)
But Public Citizen said there is ample reason to take a closer look at the out-of-sight pipelines.
In its report, the group said it has observed at least 125 excavations of potential “anomalies,” a broad category that includes dents and welds in the pipe that could lead to cracking, which, in turn, can result in oil-spilling ruptures.
Smith said the report was spurred by calls from a half dozen landowners along the Keystone’s path who were curious about why contractors were digging up already-laid sections of pipeline. Public Citizen consulted with Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada materials engineer who was fired in 2012 after raising concerns about the company’s practices. Vokes and others gathered data and made observations as they drove along the pipeline’s route and viewed it in the air.
Using pictures and detailed descriptions, the report documents many instances in which the pipeline wasn’t installed properly the first time, prompting workers to replace sections. For those sections, federal regulators do not require pipeline operators to do “hydrostatic testing,” which Public Citizen said was concerning. The testing, aimed at ensuring the pipe can handle high volumes of quick-flowing liquid, is generally required during the line's initial construction.
The group took pictures of green patches that appeared to be peeling off some sections of pipe, warning that the substandard repairs could expose the underlying material to corrosion or leaks. In other instances, they found dents “as deep as that of a brick.”
Public Citizen also took pictures of instances where the welding of two sections of pipe was tested by radiography, rather than by a technique known as “automatic ultrasonic testing,” or AUT. Radiography basically takes an X-ray of the pipe to look for problems, but the resulting images are fuzzy, according to the report, because they are taken through many layers of steel. In contrast, AUT uses high-frequency sound waves for what some pipeline experts say is a more accurate assessment of the line’s integrity.
“It’s an ancient technology that only kind of works,” Vokes said of radiography. “It’s also a technology that has resulted in leaks and failed hydrostatic tests.”
Another pipeline expert, however, said that the use of radiography alone does not necessarily raise red flags, and that it can be more appropriate for inspecting some types of welds.
“It depends on the context,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the energy consulting firm Accufacts Inc., and an adviser to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates interstate pipelines.
Kuprewicz said some of Public Citizen’s broader concerns are “valid” and raise some questions about workmanship, but they did not appear serious enough to merit a new round of hydrotesting — one of the report’s major demands— which would delay the pipeline’s activation.
“There’s no such thing as an anomaly-free pipeline,” he said. “What we tend to look for is, is there a significant breakdown?” he said. In this instance, he said, that did not appear to be the case.
Public Citizen said it shared the details of its report with PHMSA. Jennifer Shiffer, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said that PHMSA inspectors have been "overseeing welding, coating, handling of pipe, backfilling, testing and other activities" on the site of the pipe's Southern segment construction for 140 days.
"During new pipeline construction, if we find or receive evidence of a problem, we take the necessary action to protect the public and the environment," Shiffer said.
To bolster its safety credentials, TransCanada points to an agreement with the federal pipeline agency to follow 57 "special conditions" for pipeline construction and operation that the company says "no other pipeline has ever faced." A 2011 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, however, found that just 12 of the conditions differ in any way from what the agency routinely requires. The "special condition" for evaluating and repairing anomalies echoed normal standards, the analysis said.
Keystone XL is not the only major pipeline drawing concerns among landowners and environmentalists in Texas. Some, for instance, have called for the permanent shutdown of the Pegasus pipeline, which ruptured last March, sending into the streets of Mayflower, Ark. at least 210,000 gallons of thick crude that had been destined for Nederland, Texas.