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Disaster in the Making: Grave Warnings Issued That Keystone Pipeline Is Structurally Flawed

TransCanada is trying to get its Keystone XL pipeline approved, but a whistleblower is raising the alarm.

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Meanwhile the office of pipeline safety of the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which has fined offenders for years, has issued alerts, held workshops and given presentations on what it calls new construction "challenges" facing pipeline builders across the continent.

PHMSA presentations include graphic illustrations of cracked pipelines and clearly show a rising incidence of problems related to bad welding practices and improper coating of pipelines.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which investigates accidents, also  reports worsening pipeline trends too.

Since 2002 this federal agency has recorded a near doubling of pipeline incidents from an average of 95 a year to 161 incidents in 2011. The federal investigator partly blames the combined effects of the rapid pipeline growth, the conversion of oil to gas pipelines, better reporting, and an aging infrastructure. It is also studying other factors.

All pipelines contain flaws as they are not ideal but the codes set a standard for accepatable risk tolerance. But the most recent issue of the magazine Pipeline International  highlights many of the issues raised by Vokes such as the importance of pipeline integrity management. Such a process should allow operators to routinely check that their pipeline networks operate in a safe, reliable, sustainable and optimal manner.

But if neglected and unused, even the most expensive and "high tech" systems or tools will fail warns the magazine article. And if these systems are not properly enforced, adds Vokes, low probability events on pipelines can become catastrophic problems and headline makers.

The Tyee took a copy of Voke's assorted documents to an experienced engineer who has worked in the oil patch for 40 years and here's what he said.

"This man knows what he is talking about and knows his codes and jargon and metallurgy. The industry is moving too fast and doesn't have the people and experience to manage its safety systems."

Added the reviewer: "The regulators haven’t caught up with the right standards and we don't have the senior expertise to oversee some of these issues. Vokes is raising significant issues for the industry."

The issues are significant enough that that Alberta, home to 400,000 kilometres of pipeline, has  contracted a Calgary engineering firm to do an independent analysis of pipeline safety and integrity after a series of high-profile oil spills this year.

"There is only story here," adds Vokes who is pleased that the NEB is taking his allegation seriously. "It's what the NTSB report called a 'culture of deviance' and a lack of accountability. And that’s the whole thing," says the engineer.

"When you sign onto engineering ethics you have a duty of care to the public before you do to your employer."

In response to recent pipeline incidents the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association (CEPA), a lobby group for the nation's powerful pipeline builders, launched an "Integrity First" campaign last August. An industry press release says that the industry needs "to do more to reduce the frequency and impact of pipeline events."

According to CEPA its members operate and monitor 110,000 kilometres of pipelines or what it calls "energy highways" that carry nearly $60-billion worth of hydrocarbons every year.

Canada's petroleum industry wants to double the nation's oil pipeline capacity from 3 million to 6 million barrels over the next two decades.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a regular Tyee contributor. Find his previous Tyee articles  here. His new book is  The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude .

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