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Keystone XL hit with unprecedented safety conditions

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. pipeline regulator has imposed two additional conditions on the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, including the hiring of a "third party inspection company" to monitor TransCanada's performance.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has also asked the company to "develop and implement a Quality Management System that would apply to the construction of the entire Keystone XL project in the U.S. to ensure that this pipeline is -- from the beginning -- built to the highest standards by both Keystone personnel and its many contractors."

If the U.S. government approves the project, an independent contractor would now need to "oversee the execution and implementation of the 57 special conditions and applicable pipeline safety regulations and would provide monitoring summaries to PHMSA."

The two conditions were added to 57 special conditions (everything from pipe quality specification to welding procedures) last January and filed with the State Department's environmental assessment of the project. Most pipeline watchers and the media largely ignored the two conditions.  

The additional conditions spring from two warning letters issued to TransCanada from the regulator last fall over the shoddy construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Those letters cited poor practices, bad welds and a failure to use qualified welders.

A Sept. 26 letter found a high weld rejection rate on one leg of the pipeline: "During the first week 26.8% of the welds required repairs, 32.0% the second week, 72.2% the third week, and 45.0% the fourth week."

Evan Vokes, a mechanical engineer and former TransCanada employee, told the Tyee that the extra conditions are "extremely unprecedented.”

Vokes, who in the past has complained to the National Energy Board about TransCanada's engineering practices, worked for the company for five years and was fired without cause in 2012 after persistently raising concerns about the company's safety practices with senior management.

Last February the board validated his complaints, reporting that the company was "non-compliant" on issues designed to prevent and predict pipeline failures, including hazard identification, risk assessment, and management review.  

With the new conditions, the regulator is "saying that it cannot trust TransCanada Pipelines to carry out duties under the practise of engineering such as the construction and the inspection of pipelines," Vokes said.

The extra conditions effectively transfer the accountability for a safe pipeline to the federal regulator, claimed Vokes, and that's irregular. 

Davis Sheremata, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the Associated Press that dents and bad welds on the southern leg of the pipeline are a "separate matter" and have been fixed. 

In addition to the new conditions, the U.S. regulator notes that it will take TransCanada two hours to spot a 1,400-barrel oil spill on the line using current detection equipment. The regulator argues that the size of a spill could be reduced to several hundred barrels with more sensitive detection equipment.

The regulator also asked for more information on the toxicity of bitumen: "It is recommended that the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and naphthenic acids be better quantified for the products that are actually transported in the pipeline to better inform environmental remediation and response planning."

"Given the perceived link between tar sands processing and aquatic toxicity due to naphthenic acids," Keystone XL should also "obtain additional information on the naphthenic acid content of the oils to be transported."

The extraction, refining, and combustion of 830,000 barrels-per-day of oilsands crude carried by the proposed pipeline would produce between 147 to 168 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, or more than the CO2 emissions from the entire state of Oklahoma.

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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