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Keystone Pipeline ran at heightened pressure before Kansas oil spill, cause still unknown

A special exemption from 2017 allowed the Keystone Pipeline to operate at pressures above the standard for crude oil transport, a report from the federal government shows. The exemption is receiving new scrutiny following last week’s oil spill in northern Kansas, the largest in the pipeline’s history.

A special exemption from 2017 allowed the Keystone Pipeline to operate at pressures above the standard for crude oil transport, a report from the federal government shows. The exemption is receiving new scrutiny following last week’s oil spill in northern Kansas, the largest in the pipeline’s history.

The cause of last week’s record breaking oil spill is still unknown, but some activists and a state lawmaker are highlighting a need to learn more about this exception to run the pipeline at higher pressure.

“We know that the pipeline has been plagued by inherent problems associated with its original materials or installation, and sustaining greater pressure or continued corrosion over time can only make this problem worse,” Kansas Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora told The Star in an email.

A 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) permitted certain segments of Keystone to operate at 80% of the maximum recommended pressure, as long as it meets certain safety criteria. Normally, pipelines cannot operate above 72% of this pressure.

“PHMSA issued the special permit with 51 conditions that the agency determined would offset the risks of operating the relevant Keystone segments at 80 percent of (the pressure limit) in non-high consequence areas,” the report reads. “PHMSA did not allow TC Energy to fully operate Keystone at this higher stress level until 2017.”

It’s unknown exactly which segments of the pipeline were permitted to operate at this higher pressure. But the three largest Keystone Pipeline oil spills have occurred in 2017, 2019 and now in 2022 — all after the exception was made.

Cause of Kansas oil spill still unclear

Independent pipeline adviser Richard Kuprewicz told The Star that it will be impossible to know the cause for sure until TC Energy shares visuals and other information about the rupture.

“They’re not doing themselves any favors by not releasing information that should become readily public fairly quickly,” he said. “I respect that they’re trying to protect the company, but the public has a right to know certain information.”

Kuprewicz has testified before Congress on pipeline safety and has over 20 years of experience advising on pipeline operation and regulation. Among the causes of past ruptures he has studied are welding and construction problems, corrosion, accidental damage caused by nearby projects, failure of pipeline operators to follow safety regulations, inspection tools called “pigs” moving through pipelines and movement of the land around a pipeline causing a failure.

He added that the type of steel pipe used by Keystone, called Grade X-70 for its strength and thickness, should be able to handle a pressure increase from 72% to 80% as long as the operator followed the required safety guidelines. Other pipelines have gotten even higher in the past.

“X-70 should be more than able to handle higher pressures on a pipeline,” he said. “More likely, good quality X-70 steel could have gone to rupture failure, not only from land movement, but also from a previous anomaly introduced for whatever reason… some would be dependent on pressure, others would not be.”

Between 2010 and 2021, “half of Keystone’s accidents impacting people or the environment were caused by material failure of pipe or weld,” the GAO report found.

Last week, the PHMSA issued an order mandating TC Energy to file a report detailing the cause of the spill, once it has been determined, and develop a plan to improve the pipeline and avoid another failure.

Lawmaker calls for action on pipeline

State Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, an Overland Park Democrat, said she would like to see new scrutiny at the federal level of the permit that allows the pipeline to operate at higher pressure levels.

“It is worth scrutinizing the special permit further and potentially suspending or revoking it if there is any sort of causation,” Vaughn said.

Though there’s little the state can do to regulate the pipeline, Vaughn said she and Westwood Democratic Rep. Rui Xu planned to draft a bill eliminating TC Energy’s exemption from state property tax. The removal wouldn’t impact cleanup efforts or regulation.

“We want to send a message that the state shouldn’t be giving tax breaks to corporations that are polluting our communities and environment,” she said in a text.

Adam Smith, a Weskan Republican who chairs the House tax committee, said he wasn’t interested in eliminating the exemption for one company.

“It sounds like that would be something that’s kind of in retribution and I’m not willing to open up that can of worms for if this would happen all over the state with different industries and entities,” he said. “That’s not something that I think is a proper response.”

In public statements members of Kansas’ federal delegation strayed away from specifics as the cause of the spill is still being determined.

“Sen. Moran is working with local, state and federal officials on the impact of this accident and what steps can be taken to prevent future spills,” Tom Brandt, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids spokesman, Zac Donley, said in a statement that the congresswoman would continue to speak with Kansans impacted and hoped to learn the cause soon.

“Rep. Davids is of course concerned with the spill and is working with state, local, and federal officials to ensure an appropriate response,” Donley said in an email.

Cleanup still ongoing

Cleanup efforts are expected to continue into at least next week on the site of the spill. TC Energy announced Monday that they had recovered “2,598 barrels of oil and water” from the creek. The company added that over 300 people, including cleanup crews and regulators, are now on site.

In Kansas City, environmental activists are calling the spill a “wake up call” indicating a broader climate emergency.

“Oil spills like this one are a climate disaster, treating the destruction of human lives and the land as a cost of doing business,” said Alex Teasley, a leader with the Kansas City chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a national youth-led environmental organization.

Aerial photos and video of the scene show a wide black swath of oil-soaked land adjacent to Mill Creek, a small tributary of the Kansas River. This is not to be confused with the Mill Creek located in central Kansas City.

As part of the remediation effort, TC Energy has built two ‘underflow dams’ across a portion of Mill Creek around four miles downstream from the spill. These man made dirt structures allow the clean water at the bottom of a river or stream to continue flowing while containing the upper layer of the water, where spilled oil floats on the surface.

“There are no current concerns for oil migration past the underflow dam,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in a press release Friday. On Tuesday, Dec. 13, the agency added that a second dam had been constructed to provide “structural relief” to the first dam and that no additional oil spread had occurred.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued a Stream Advisory on Friday warning residents to stay away from Mill Creek between 18th Road and the Little Blue River.

“If you live or have activities near this stream, do not enter the stream or allow livestock, children, or pets to enter the stream,” the department wrote.

The EPA announced Friday that the spill had been contained and would not impact local drinking water wells or reach the Little Blue River, which eventually flows into the Kansas River. Agency officials are still on the ground supervising the cleanup.

In the meantime, a nearly 100-mile segment of the pipeline must remain shut down until repairs are complete, according to a Department of Transportation order issued last week.

“I find that continued operation of the Affected Segment, as defined below, without corrective measures is or would be hazardous to life, property, or the environment, and that failure to issue this Order expeditiously would result in the likelihood of serious harm,” wrote Alan K. Mayberry, the department’s associate administrator for pipeline safety.