Photo by Jordan McRae
TransCanada, which wants to build Keystone XL, had another burst on Jan. 25.

Only days before the U.S. State Dept. released its long-awaited environmental review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the company applying to build it, TransCanada Corp., experienced its third major pipeline rupture since October. TransCanada now faces a multitude of safety, engineering and construction questions as the company anxiously awaits President Barack Obama's final approval or rejection of the permit the Calgary-based firm needs to build the 1,179-mile pipeline segment connecting the tar-sands basin, near Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb.

The stakes are high. On Oct. 17, 2013, TransCanada subsidiary Nova Gas Transmission Ltd.'s (NGTL) north-central corridor line, west of Fort McMurray, Alberta, ruptured. On Oct. 20, the North Lateral Extension Loop began to leak in Alberta. Another NGTL incident followed on Dec. 10, on the Flat Lake Lateral Loop line. The most recent rupture—on Jan. 25, near Otterburne, Manitoba—left 4,000 without heat in brutal cold and sent flames 300 meters into the sky.

Because of increased tar-sands and shale production, pipeline operators are under pressure to add capacity. The amount of new rail-terminal and pipeline construction work has been staggering, but the two modes of transport are often politicized. The pipeline industry has used a recent series of railroad accidents involving crude oil to push for the approval of new pipelines such as Keystone XL, maintaining that pipeline transport of energy products is inherently safer.

The State Dept. agrees in a Jan. 31 report that states, "All other alternatives to Keystone XL are less efficient methods of transporting crude oil, resulting in significantly more greenhouse-gas emissions, oil spills and risks to public safety." The State Dept.'s environmental review of Keystone, however, does not call into question TransCanada's safety record or its engineering, construction and incident-monitoring capacity. However, Canada's National Energy Board, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Pipeline and the Hazardous Material Safety Administration have all criticized TransCanada's competency. NEB determined that TransCanada's engineering evaluation, submitted in response to the Oct. 20 leak, "does not meet the requirement for an engineering assessment." It added, "The engineering evaluation submitted did not adequately demonstrate the Loop is fit for service at the pressure recommended by TransCanada."

"That's the NEB telling TransCanada that it is negligent," says Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada engineer who was fired in 2011, after he raised internal complaints about TransCanada's engineering and construction practices. TransCanada said it could not work with Vokes on investigation and inspection procedures. After Vokes was dismissed, he submitted a formal complaint to NEB that warned of dangers in TransCanada's pipeline system. Since then, two pipelines he identified as problematic have ruptured.

But Vokes is not alone in citing TransCanada's engineering and construction mishaps. PHMSA issued two warning letters to TransCanada in regard to its construction of the recently commissioned Keystone Gulf Coast pipeline, a 485-mile, 36-in. crude-oil pipeline beginning in Cushing, Okla., and extending south to Nederland, Texas. PHMSA told TransCanada in a Sept. 10 letter that it appeared to be in violation of federal pipeline safety regulations during construction. "During the field inspections [of Keystone Gulf Coast], PHMSA witnessed and examined anomaly investigations being conducted by TransCanada due to the results of a deformation-tool run. The deformation tool identified dents on the pipe that appear to be caused by secondary stresses on the pipe," the Sept. 10 letter said. It added that dents, problematic welds and coating deterioration contribute to the potential for an incident.

No enforcement actions were taken, however, and the pipeline was put into service on schedule. "PHMSA closed these investigations on the very days they wrote these letters, which tells us they never intended on doing anything," says Kathy DaSilva of the Tar Sands Blockade, Houston, a group opposed to the construction of Keystone XL. The group met last summer with PHMSA investigators on reported code violations the agency received from landowners in the construction domain of Keystone Gulf Coast. "Investors had been told that the Gulf Coast pipeline would be in service by a certain date, and it was," DaSilva notes.

The fire from the Manitoba rupture on Jan. 25 burned for more than 12 hours, something that should never happen, Vokes says. "There's only one reason that a fire from an accident like this should burn for 12 hours, and that is if you can't shut off the valves," he says. TransCanada says valve lubrication is a standard practice within its maintenance program.

Still, Vokes asks, "What happens when you grease a valve? It's stuck open, and you can't shut it off. So, you have the valve intervals increasing—violating regulations—and that is why you see a fire from a pipeline explosion burning for 12 hours. That is what happens when you can't isolate a pipe."

NEB spokeswoman Carole Léger- Kubeczek declined to say whether the agency would impose penalties for the most recent Otterburne blast, adding, "We are near completing an audit of the company [that] we will be publishing shortly." Meanwhile, TransCanada, which did not respond to ENR's requests for comment, has reportedly returned the line to service.