The Keystone Pipeline Network Could Soon Be Completed Under Trump, But Will It Be Safe?

Keystone pipeline in Texas

In the coming months, TransCanada will likely receive a green light to build the final leg of its Keystone pipeline network, which would carry Canadian tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. President-elect Trump has said that, during his first 100 days in office, he will reverse President Obama’s decision to block the Keystone XL Pipeline.

If built, TransCanada maintains that the Keystone pipeline will be the safest pipeline ever built. But an ongoing DeSmog investigation into the Keystone network’s safety record continues to raise questions about the veracity of TransCanada’s claim.

The existing Keystone network has been marred by spills and probable code violations. The most recent spill was in April 2016 when a landowner in South Dakota discovered what turned out to be a 16,800 gallon spill from the Keystone 1 pipeline on his land.

A Pipeline Network Marked by Spills and Secrecy

The Keystone pipeline network starts with the Keystone 1 line in Hardisty, Alberta, connecting with the Cushing Gulf Coast Extension pipeline in Steele City, Nebraska, which ends in Cushing, Oklahoma. There, the network meets the Keystone XL Gulf Coast pipeline, ending at refineries in coastal Texas. 

The Keystone 1 pipeline went online in June 2010. In the first two years of operation, that pipeline had more than a dozen spills. In October 2012, it was shut down when areas of extreme external corrosion were detected during a mandatory safety test with an in-line inspection tool.

When the pipeline shutdown was made public, TransCanada and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told the press that the shutdown was due to “possible safety issues.” And although PHMSA sent representatives to the site where TransCanada was digging up the pipeline in Missouri, no further information was made available to the public.

Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada employee-turned-whistleblower, advised reporters to look into what happened because he suspected that something very serious had gone wrong. “You don’t shut a pipe down that earns millions of dollars a day over a small anomaly,” he said. Yet that is how TransCanada described the incident to reporters in 2012.

DeSmog took Vokes' advice, and asked TransCanada and PHMSA if the cathodic protection system, which protects the pipeline’s coating, played a role in the shutdown or not. Neither entity would answer the question, so DeSmog filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in August 2103 for all documents related to the shutdown. 

More than two years later, PHMSA partially filled the request. The partial release of information revealed that sections of the pipeline's wall had corroded drastically, leaving those areas dangerously thin, and leading TransCanada to shut it down immediately. 

The corrosion which the in-line inspection tool detected was so extreme that TransCanada had an oil spill cleanup crew on hand when it dug up the pipe in areas where corrosion was detected. One spot had lost 96.8 percent of its thickness by the time it was unearthed.

Waiting for More Information

The FOIA request has yet to be fully filled. DeSmog has received piecemeal information since PHMSA sent its first response. 

Documents TransCanada marked confidential originally were not released to DeSmog. When DeSmog inquired about documents mentioned in emails that weren’t part of the released information, Madeline Van Nostrand, FOIA officer with PHMSA, explained that before she could give them to DeSmog, she would have to give TransCanada a chance to make the case for why they shouldn’t be released. 

Van Nostrand assured DeSmog that just because the company marked the documents confidential didn’t mean she wouldn’t turn them over. “We will make our own review determination, but only after consulting with TransCanada,” she wrote in December 2015. 

Though PHSMA released some of the documents, TransCanada argued to keep private a 30-page operational and maintenance (O&M) report. Though Van Nostrand had previously communicated that DeSmog should expect this matter to be settled before the end of last year, before Christmas she explained that she is giving the company more time to argue why the document should be excluded from release under an exemption, which protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential” 

Vokes said that there should be nothing top-secret in an O&M report. This was confirmed by another pipeline industry insider who said that most of what is found in an O&M report is “pretty much standard throughout the industry, and shouldn’t give any financial edge to a competitor.”

Whether and when DeSmog will receive this last document is unknown. 

The Keystone XL-Gulf Coast Pipeline

In light of the Keystone 1 pipeline’s cathodic system failing to protect its coating from corrosion, DeSmog asked PHMSA and TransCanada in November 2016 if there were any issues with the Gulf Coast pipeline’s cathodic protection system. 

The Gulf Coast pipeline has been operational for more than two years. Because its cathodic protection has to be checked every six months, that data should be available to the company and the regulator.

Jennalee Colpitts, a representative from TransCanada, wrote to DeSmog, “The Gulf Coast Pipeline has been safely operating since 2014, and there have been no issues with the cathodic protection system.”

But PHMSA would only confirm that there were no issues with the cathodic protection system through 2015. “PHMSA’s year 2015 and prior inspections of TransCanada’s Gulf Coast Pipeline did not identify instances of non-compliance with pipeline safety regulations related to cathodic protection,” Damon Hill, a PHMSA representative, wrote to DeSmog. “However, PHMSA did issue enforcement documents to outline possible inadequacies found in the operator’s procedures for determining the adequacy of its cathodic protection systems for its pipeline and certain aboveground breakout tanks.”

Landowners Let Down by TransCanada 

Landowner Michael Bishop stands on his property next to an upside-down American flag
Michael Bishop flew his American flag upside-down to show his property was under distress while TransCanada installed the Keystone Gulf Coast Pipeline on his Texas land in February 2013. © Juile Dermansky

The fact that DeSmog did not get complete answers from PHMSA didn’t surprise Michael Bishop, a Texas landowner who has the pipeline on his land. Bishop said he found the federal regulators to be useless, and the only way he expects to get a response from PHMSA is if he were to report a spill. None of the concerns he had about the pipeline’s safety that he brought to PHSMA’s attention were ever addressed.

Bishop has filed multiple lawsuits against TransCanada, acting as his own lawyer. His last legal battle is set to be waged in front of a jury in the Nacogdoches County District Court on April 25, 2017. 

Bishop is suing TransCanada for “fraud, misrepresentation, perjury, theft, bribery, and violating plaintiff’s rights as delineated under the Constitution of the State of Texas.” According to Bishop, TransCanada has not fulfilled its contractual obligation to restore his property to pre-construction conditions.

Texas landowner Eleanor Fairchild stands in a deeply eroded cut on her land.
Eleanor Fairchild standing in a cut on her land caused by erosion connected to the Keystone Gulf Coast pipeline. TransCanada has agreed to fix the damage. ©2016 Julie Dermansky 

Eleanor Fairchild, a property owner in Winnsboro, Texas, also questions the safety of the southern route of the Keystone XL pipeline and TransCanada’s ability to restore her property to its original condition. She plans to testify on Bishop’s behalf.

Soon after the pipeline was installed on her land, erosion began. Holes opened up so deep she could stand inside them. After years of complaining to TransCanada and every government agency that might be able to help her, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers paid her a visit to check on the problems along her creek that the Corps governs. 

This January, Neil Lebsock, a member of the Corps’ Compliance Department, told Fairchild that the Corps sent TransCanada a non-compliance letter with instructions to submit a plan to fix the problems the company created on her land. 

Fairchild asked Lebsock for a copy of the letter. She told DeSmog that he declined, and told her she needed to put in an FOIA request to get it, or ask TransCanada for a copy.

DeSmog left a message with the public relations department at the Corps' Fort Worth office where Lebsock works to find out if landowners are entitled to a copy of a letter relating to their own land, but did not hear back before publication.

Fairchild, who is 82, jokes that if it takes her as long to get an answer to a FOIA request as it has taken DeSmog, she might not be alive when the information arrives. 

Trump insisted during his campaign that people can get rich using eminent domain claims. Fairchild and Bishop believe that Trump is mistaken. Both of them feel betrayed by the government, which has made it possible for a foreign corporation to profit from their land. 

Both warn anyone faced with a situation in which the government allows a company to use eminent domain to take their land, if something goes wrong, landowners have to deal with the fall-out on their own. 

Bishop hopes that those fighting to prevent Trump from allowing TransCanada to build the rest of the Keystone XL pipeline will support his court challenge. If Bishop’s challenge against TransCanada is successful, his case has the potential to shut down the entire project.

Main image: The Keystone Gulf Coast pipeline being installed on Michael Bishop's Texas property on February 9, 2013. © Julie Dermansky