The safest place for oil is still in the ground


There’s been a lot of talk recently on environmental websites and in the news media about which is a riskier way to transport oil and natural gas to market: Through pipelines or in rail tanker cars. Of course, that’s something of a trick question because the real answer is: Neither.

On the pipeline front, there are many reasons to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada across the American heartland and all the way to the Gulf Coast, where much of it would then be shipped to overseas markets. In recent months, opponents to the Keystone XL have focused more on the links between the heavy tar-sands oil and climate change — and that is indeed very important. But one of the original reasons that so many opposed the pipeline is the risk of a major spill that could contaminate drinking water on U.S. soil, and now a new report offers some alarming detail on that risk:

Safety regulators have quietly placed two extra conditions on construction of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline after learning of potentially dangerous construction defects involving the southern leg of the Canada-to-Texas project.

The defects — high rates of bad welds, dented pipe and damaged pipeline coating — have been fixed. But the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration wants to make sure similar problems don’t occur during construction of the pipeline’s controversial northern segment, which is on hold pending a decision by the Obama administration.

Here’s some more information on those defects:

“From the start of welding, TransCanada experienced a high weld rejection rate,” said one letter dated Sept. 26. Over 72 percent of welds required repairs during one week. In another week, TransCanada stopped welding work after 205 of 425 welds required repair.

 Inspections by the safety agency found TransCanada wasn’t using approved welding procedures to connect pipes, the letter said. The company had hired welders who weren’t qualified to work on the project because TransCanada used improper procedures to test them, the letter said. In order to qualify to work on a pipeline, welders must have recent experience using approved welding procedures and pass a test of their work.

That’s an appalling failure rate, for any type of project. But more importantly, it undercuts the leading argument for transporting so much oil and gas by massive pipelines such as the Keystone XL, which is that new construction and modern technology make them 100 percent safe. That’s balderdash. And while the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration deserves credit for calling out these defects, the reality is this agency is woefully underfunded and undermanned.

The problem, of course, is that Big Oil is determined to move this product one way or the other — and so the alternative has been to use rail transport, which quite arguably is worse:

While the recent surge in domestic oil production has raised concerns about fracking, less attention has been paid to the billions of gallons of petroleum crisscrossing the country in “virtual pipelines” running through neighbor­hoods and alongside waterways. Most of this oil is being shipped in what’s been called “the Ford Pinto of rail cars”—a tank car whose safety flaws have been known for more than two decades.

The original DOT-111 tank car was designed in the 1960s. Its safety flaws were pointed out in the early ’90s, but more than 200,000 are still in service, with about 78,000 carrying crude oil and other flammable liquids. The DOT-111 tank car’s design flaws “create an unacceptable public risk,” Deborah Hersman, then chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, testified at a Senate hearing in April. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has compared the car to “a ticking time bomb.” While the rail industry has voluntarily rolled out about 14,000 stronger tank cars, about 78,000 of the older DOT-111s remain in service. Retrofitting them would cost an estimated $1 billion.

You almost have to chuckle at the cleverness of that line — “the Ford Pinto of rail cars” — but the ongoing problems and increasing risk of oil-rail shipments are no laughing matter. It’s clear that in the short run, a couple of things are going to need to happen. Not only should President Obama nix the Keystone XL pipeline, but federal regulation and inspections of thousands of miles of existing pipeline needs to be greatly increased. As for rail, the DOT-111 needs to be taken out of service as quickly as possible. While the $1 billion pricetag sounds high, it is just a fraction of the massive profits that Big Oil is currently reaping from extraction in North America.

In the long run, of course, this nation needs to stop indulging in its oil addiction and refocus its attention on alternative fuels. The only safe way to handle crude oil is to leave it where it is.

For more information about the welding problems on the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, please read:

Check out Mother Jones’ article on the unsafe DOT-111 tanker cars:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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