When North Dakota rancher Bob Banderet found the Keystone pipeline gushing oil from a pumping station near his land on the morning of May 7, 2011, he knew to call the emergency phone number that TransCanada Corp. had printed on pens for his fellow volunteer firefighters.
What happened after that call leaves 60-year-old Banderet, and some pipeline safety advocates, with lingering questions about the nation's leak detection standards as oil pipelines enter an era of unprecedented expansion and scrutiny.
TransCanada asked federal regulators to amend their shutdown order after the 2011 leak to reflect that its internal sensors -- not Banderet -- first discovered the problem. Intensifying its push to win a presidential permit for its Keystone XL sequel pipeline, the company recently cited the North Dakota spill as a sign that "the system worked as it was designed to do."
Banderet is not so sure. In a recent interview, he recalled speaking for about three minutes on the morning of the leak with a dispatcher at TransCanada's emergency response line who asked before transferring him to the company's control room, "Is this a drill, or is this a joke?" Three days after the incident, he added, a TransCanada community relations specialist stopped by to give him a handwritten thank-you note and a $150 debit card.
"Maybe she was the last to know," Banderet said of the TransCanada dispatcher, "but that makes it harder for me to believe they knew something was going on."
In a June 2011 order against TransCanada, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration wrote that the company shut down the flow of oil "after being notified ... by a local citizen" of the leak from Keystone's Ludden pumping station. PHMSA later edited its order "following informal discussions" between TransCanada and its federal regulator to reflect a new version of events: that Banderet called as the company was "investigating the suspected leak condition" indicated by "a change in flow rates."
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard explained via email that there were "many activities taking place at the same time" on the morning of the leak.
"[A]s our Oil Control Centre personnel were responding and isolating the pipeline, we also received a call from a local citizen," Howard said. "It shows that both our pipeline control and monitoring systems were working, and that the considerable effort that we put into Public Awareness Notification with landowners also worked in that he knew who to call -- which also provided important verification to us as we were responding."
TransCanada touted its response to the Ludden leak in a blog post earlier this summer that pushed back at a report about its decision to forgo external leak-detection technologies for KXL. The blog, part of a new rapid-response effort the company has rolled out amid environmentalists' all-hands-on-desk resistance to its new pipeline proposal, made no mention of Banderet's role in the 2011 incident.
TransCanada did acknowledge that its computerized monitoring is only one part of a leak-detection system that also relies on the individual expertise of pipeline controllers. In a report to PHMSA and state regulators at the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC), which also investigated the Ludden leak, the company wrote that "the minor pressure drop" on the morning of May 7 did not set off alarms in the control room but "was observed as anomalous" (see accompanying graph).
Richard Kuprewicz, a safety expert who has advised PHMSA, the industry and anti-KXL activists, said in an interview that "the odds would be very low that it would show up as a pressure drop and they would see it." The Keystone leak near Banderet's land, estimated in various reports as between 400 and 500 barrels, came from a malfunctioning fitting at the Ludden station -- typically a small-scale anomaly.
"On liquid pipelines, it's a fact that most major releases are identified by somebody calling the control room," Kuprewicz said. "You can't have a system that detects all leaks. It's just impossible."
Local residents spotted 23 percent of 197 larger-volume liquid pipeline releases between 2010 and 2012, compared with 12 percent detected by computerized monitors and 5 percent pinpointed by individual controllers, according to a report prepared for PHMSA last year.
The KXL impact
Banderet still wonders how much the company's controllers knew when he called in the leak on the morning of May 7, 2011. During a tour of the Ludden station for volunteer firefighters later that year, he recalled, a TransCanada employee joked about the effectiveness of those pens printed with the emergency response hotline.
"Does this spill offer a glimpse of the risk the ND environment is possibly exposed to? What additional precautions could be required to lower [the risk of a] potential catastrophic event?" Banderet and a fellow local responder, Paul Mathews, wrote to the North Dakota PSC a year after the leak.
The risk of such damage to remote rural communities is among the issues driving opposition to the pipeline from conservative Plains-state ranchers and farmers who might never affiliate with the Sierra Club if not for the common cause of keeping out KXL. Bold Nebraska Executive Director Jane Kleeb, who marshals those unlikely pipeline critics on a full-time basis, disputed TransCanada's claim to have detected the Ludden leak, which she called "a geyser."
"The sensors fail, give false readings or simply break. TransCanada is not even using the latest technology for spill detection," Kleeb said via email. "If we put more local regulations in place, as well as actually staff PHMSA at the level where they can be the watchdog of pipelines, we would have fewer leaks and fewer water and property damage."
TransCanada's Howard strongly defended the "very conservative operating protocol" in place at the company, which must meet a leak detection deadline based on the amount of crude running through KXL: A loss of 1.5 percent of the flow should be caught within 140 minutes, and a loss as high as 50 percent of the flow should be caught within nine minutes.
"Keystone is shut down at the first sign of any possible leak or for any third-party reports of suspected leaks," TransCanada's Howard said via email.
As a part of its years-long KXL environmental review, the State Department vowed to commission an independent engineering analysis of whether the $5.3 billion oil sands crude pipeline would need extra leak protection in areas with "particularly sensitive environmental resources," a category that could encompass the sandy soil cover and high water tables of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kleeb's home state. That analysis is underway but may not be released before State completes its review, despite U.S. EPA's call to make the results public (Greenwire, June 19).
In its leak-detection report written for PHMSA last year, Ohio-based Kiefner & Associates pointed to pipeline operators' push to avoid false alarms as a possible factor decreasing the sensitivity of internal systems.
"The impact on operators is that often they set the thresholds for a leak alarm so wide that the sensitivity of the detection suffers," Kiefner wrote to federal safety regulators. "Although there are no false alarms any more, there are also very few alarms of any kind so at best only large ruptures are reported."
Kuprewicz, the safety expert, offered that improving operators' ability to find large leaks might be a good place to start. "I've told people, you've got to be focusing on ruptures," he said.
Even if TransCanada were to pursue outside-the-pipeline leak detection tools such as fiber-optic cables or thermal sensors, those external strategies got a less-than-full endorsement from Kiefner. "Whereas there is at least a set of [American Petroleum Institute] recommended practices to follow and to cite when recommending an internal system," the PHMSA-hired analysts wrote, "there is no such guideline with external systems."