Keystone Pipeline:
Innovation Beyond


Image: TransCanada

The $5.3-billion Alberta-to-Nebraska Keystone XL oil pipeline is the most ambitious U.S. infrastructure project in a long time. It would carry crude from North America's hottest new oil reserves to refineries and saltwater ports in the Midwest and Texas Gulf Coast. Keystone XL may one day help fuel a nation, but it's been fueling a piping-hot national debate for years.

Project Background

The Keystone XL project adds to the existing Keystone pipeline system, which has been moving Canadian crude oil and diluted bitumen from a terminal in Hardisty, Alberta, to facilities in Nebraska and Illinois since 2010 and will ultimately extend to Houston. Keystone XL's proposed route through booming U.S. oil regions in Montana and the Dakotas would also serve U.S. producers in the Bakken shale, where trucks and trains currently offer the only means of moving their product. The XL's capacity of 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) would include about 100,000 bpd of U.S. crude, and production in the region would ramp up accordingly.

Aside from the debates surrounding the Keystone XL project, it is infrastructure engineering on the grandest scale. Image: TransCanada





Principal builder TransCanada, Calgary, Alberta, has assembled the Keystone system in phases, getting a jump on construction in states where regulatory approvals have been swift. Today, the Keystone XL phase poses the last regulatory hurdle, and it's a doozy. Its route crosses an international border and multiple U.S. political fault lines. More about that later.

The total length of Keystone XL is 1,179 miles, about 850 miles of which is on U.S. soil. TransCanada is burying 400,000 tons of 36-in. steel pipe at least four feet below the surface along a 110-foot-wide path. The steel is sourced mainly from North America and will come from U.S. and Canadian mills.

TransCanada says that the pipe will be coated with an anti-corrosive epoxy to help prevent leaks and spills. Joints and seals are checked multiple times for integrity. The company also uses cathodic protection methods using electrical current through the pipeline to fight corrosion.

Ongoing monitoring and flow control operations will be based in a central command center, where crews will have access to diagnostic software, process control systems, and emergency shut-offs. An additional layer of leak monitoring comprises air- and ground-based visual checks, internal pipeline inspection gauges, known as PIGs, external leak and spill sensors, all feeding data into a computer prediction system that illuminates potential trouble spots.

Map of the Keystone XL project. Image: TransCanada


Because the Keystone project falls largely over level terrain, it poses only typical construction challenges, according to geotechnical contractor Terracon. However, the need to burrow under several wide rivers, including the Missouri and the Platte, required some fancy drilling. In fact, some of the same horizontal directional drilling techniques used to open up the shale oil deposits in the Bakken region are the secret to a safe subterranean route below these riparian plumes. Getting into safe territory below a river wider than 100 feet involves boring hundreds of yards across and below riverbeds to reach stable bedrock, according to Charles W. Valenta, geotechnical operations manager in Terracon's Lenexa, KS, office.

"Dilbit" Dilemma

TransCanada says Keystone XL is the safest pipeline ever built. However, environmentalists and alternative energy advocates are having none of it. At the heart of the debate is the nontraditional type of oil Keystone XL would carry.

Much of the Canadian product is synthetic crude and tar sands containing bitumen, a black and sticky goo used for various dirty human jobs since the Neanderthals' time. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council believe bitumen-based petroleum burns hotter and will cause higher greenhouse gas emissions. NRDC also cites studies showing that diluted bitumen ("dilbit") is more corrosive than conventional oil, and therefore, more likely to cause leaks and spills along the pipeline.

A well-publicized June 2013 study by a National Academy of Sciences review committee found "nothing extraordinary" that makes dilbit more likely to cause spills in oil pipelines, according to committee chairman Mark Barteau, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Michigan. Barteau said today's oil and gas pipelines are no hotter than "the temperature of the hot water lines in your house."

But Barteau cautions against reading broader meaning into the NAS report. "Although many of the headlines of stories about the committee report mentioned Keystone XL, we did not explicitly consider that project or draw conclusions specific to it," he says. "The committee was asked to answer a fairly narrow technical question, and we did so. Others have raised additional questions, especially regarding the consequences of release of diluted bitumen. Our report considered, as per our statement of task, only the likelihood of release of diluted bitumen."

Other environmental opponents have criticized TransCanada's system for leak and spill prevention and monitoring, advocating for the use of newer internal monitoring technologies. Other factions worry about the risk to farm and ranch lands and Native American heritage sites. And green energy advocates lament a further step in the fossil fuel direction.

These arguments are not new to Keystone XL, but they are matched with a new level of intensity from proponents who see the promised jobs and production increases as the answer to multiple U.S. challenges.

As a result, Keystone is not only the largest of the many North American pipeline projects currently under way but also the most scrutinized. Government review of TransCanada's original application has been ongoing since 2009 and, as of this writing, sits on President Obama's desk until he becomes convinced that the project won't cause a substantial increase in the nation's greenhouse emissions. For a leader who has pledged to reduce imported oil from volatile regions and also to reduce the manmade contributors to climate change while also reinvigorating a bruised economy, it's hard to imagine a more challenging decision.

One thing about Keystone XL is beyond debate. Whether or not the pipeline is built, the crude oil riches of the Bakken shale will be tapped and taken to market somehow. Engineers will deal with the devil in the details – and the dilbit.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

Keystone is not only the largest of the many North American pipeline projects currently under way but also the most scrutinized.


August 2013

by Michael MacRae,