The Keystone Pipeline has transported over 3 billion barrels of crude oil from Canada to U.S. refineries since 2010. Keystone’s accident history is similar to other pipelines, but the severity of its spills has worsened in recent years due to two large spills in 2017 and 2019.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) required Keystone operator TC Energy to investigate and address the root causes of the four largest spills. DOT has also issued enforcement actions and civil penalties for problems like inadequate corrosion prevention. Based on Keystone “lessons learned,” DOT has increased inspection resources for other pipelines during construction.
Prior to construction, TC Energy requested and obtained a special permit from DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to operate certain portions of the pipeline at a higher stress level than is allowed under PHMSA’s regulations. Since TC Energy was the first and remains the only hazardous liquid pipeline operator to request a waiver of this particular regulation, the Keystone special permit is unique.
PHMSA reviewed technical information and drew on its experience granting similar permits to natural gas pipelines to develop 51 conditions with which TC Energy must comply. Most pipeline safety and technical stakeholders GAO interviewed agreed the conditions offset the risks of operating at a higher stress level. However, PHMSA did not allow TC Energy to fully operate Keystone at this higher stress level until 2017, after TC Energy replaced pipe affected by industry-wide pipeline quality issues.
Keystone’s accident history has been similar to other crude oil pipelines since 2010, but the severity of spills has worsened in recent years. Similar to crude oil pipelines nationwide, most of Keystone’s 22 accidents from 2010 through 2020 released fewer than 50 barrels of oil and were contained on operator-controlled property such as a pump station. The two largest spills in Keystone’s history in 2017 and 2019 were among the six accidents that met PHMSA’s criteria for accidents “impacting people or the environment.” According to PHMSA’s measures for these more severe types of accidents, from 2010 to 2020 TC Energy performed better than nationwide averages, but worse in the past five years due to the 2017 and 2019 spills.
In response to each of Keystone’s four largest spills, PHMSA issued Corrective Action Orders requiring TC Energy to investigate the accidents’ root causes and take necessary corrective actions. These investigations found that the four accidents were caused by issues related to the original design, manufacturing of the pipe, or construction of the pipeline. PHMSA also issued other enforcement actions and assessed civil penalties to TC Energy for deficiencies found during inspections, such as inadequate corrosion prevention and missing pipeline markers. Based in part on its experience overseeing Keystone, PHMSA officials said they have increased resources to conduct inspections during construction of other pipelines and are establishing a more formal process to document and track the compliance of all special permits, including Keystone’s permit.
Following the publication of GAO’s report, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Energy Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) released a statement.
“GAO’s report validates President Biden’s decision to revoke the permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline,” the Chairs said. “In its thorough review of the pipeline’s history and construction, GAO found that preventable construction issues contributed to the current Keystone pipeline’s spills more frequently than the industry-wide trends. In fact, GAO found that, while corrosion was the industry’s leading cause of such accidents on crude oil pipelines, half of Keystone’s accidents were caused by material failure of the pipe or weld. Additionally, four of the pipeline’s largest spills were caused by construction of the pipeline, manufacturing of the pipe, or original design issues. TC Energy’s record among its peers is one of the worst in terms of volume of oil spilled per mile transported. President Biden was clearly right to question this operator’s ability to construct a safe and resilient pipeline, and we support his decision to put Americans’ health and environment above industry interests.”