Pipeline Risk: Who's Judging?

In its risk assessment, is the State Department just taking the developer of the Keystone XL pipeline at its word?

After the Deepwater Horizon spill, Americans were outraged to find out how lax government officials had been in their oversight of the oil industry. It looks like history could repeat itself with the Keystone XL pipeline--the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline that will transport bitumen from the Canadian tar sands across the United States. Several days ago, the State Department released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the pipeline and claims the risks are minimal. But one engineer from Nebraska is asking the State Department to take a harder look at the potential for spills.

Last week, I wrote about John Stansbury, a civil engineering professor who, in July, released an independent report that reviewed the pipeline's environmental risks. He found that TransCanada (the company that wants to build the pipeline) had underestimated the likelihood of spills. I spoke with him again today; he has just worked his way through the State Department's eight-volume final environmental report.

"The Department of State seems to completely depend on what TransCanada says about [the pipeline]," Stansbury says. He says the numbers and assumptions that TransCanada used in its reports are nearly identical to those cited in both the draft and final EIS issued by the State Department. In other words, Stansbury believes the State Department lifted much of its data from TransCanada, rather than doing its own evaluation. And he says "nearly nothing" has changed between the draft and final versions of the environmental impact assessment.

Unsurprisingly, the assessments paint a rosy picture of the project. As an example, Stansbury points to how long they estimate it would take to shut down a pipeline valve during a spill. The final EIS estimates it would take 12 minutes. A report produced for TransCanada by the firm DNV Consulting estimates 11.5 minutes for a large spill.

"We've had several spills recently, and nobody gets pipelines shut down in 11 and a half minutes," says Stansbury. "And even if they could, if their leak-detection system works perfectly ... if the operators interpret the signals perfectly, it's not the worst-case scenario. That's the best-case analysis. The worst-case scenario is, what if 25 years from now, that leak detection system isn't working perfectly? What if the operators--as happened in the case of the Enbridge spill--just plain misinterpret the alarms from the leak detection system?"

And of course, the oil industry doesn't have a good track record for honesty about its failings and weaknesses. ExxonMobil told the public that it shut down the recent oil pipeline spill on the Yellowstone River in half an hour; later, federal documents revealed it took twice that long, according to reports by the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the EPA hasn't yet released a review of the final environmental report, but a June letter called the draft report inadequate. TransCanada has been openly disdainful of the EPA. TransCanada vice president Robert Jones told Greenwire, "I want to be responsive" to the EPA, "the frustration I have is that I might as well be talking to NRDC or the Sierra Club."

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.