YORK, Neb. — The nation's former top federal pipeline regulator commended those fighting to stop the Keystone XL oil pipeline Tuesday, saying they have helped make the project safer than when it was first proposed.
But Brigham McCown, who once headed the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said further delays in federal approval for the project could raise the likelihood of crude oil spills. That's because transporting oil by rail, truck or barge carries a greater risk of accidents, he said.
“We can't eliminate our oil dependency overnight,” said McCown, who now works as an industry consultant in Dallas. “If it's going to be used, how do we move it from point A to B as safely as possible?”
McCown appeared at a pipeline briefing in York sponsored by Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, a strong supporter of the Keystone XL.
After McCown and two other advocates made the case for pipeline safety, Keystone XL opponent Susan Dunavan said she remains unconvinced. The proposed pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil daily past Dunavan's rural McCool Junction home on the way to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“A pipeline carries so much more oil than a train,” said Dunavan, one of three landowners suing the state over the project. “I don't see how you can compare the two.”
Barry Rubin, director of Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, said the purpose of Tuesday's briefing was to counter what he called “misinformation” about the safety and reliability of oil pipelines. “They should be entitled to their own opinions about the project,” he said, “but they shouldn't be entitled to their own facts.”
Pipelines deliver between 11 billion and 13 billion barrels of liquid fuels each day in the United States, and 99.9 percent of it arrives safely, said Andrew Black, president and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipelines.
TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build Keystone XL, plans to use the latest, corrosion-resistant pipe for the 1,700-mile, underground pipeline. Construction welds would be inspected by third-party inspectors, which, in turn, would be audited by federal regulators.
The finished 36-inch diameter pipeline would be tested by running pressurized water through its entire length. The test would reveal any manufacturing or construction defects, Black said.
Keystone XL would be operated by trained staff members at a control station, where they would watch for drops in pressure or volume, which could indicate a leak. “In the event of a release, they are authorized by management and told by management to shut down the pumps,” Black said.
Over the past decade, the pipeline industry has reduced such releases by 62 percent, Black said.
J. Berton Fisher, a hydrogeologist from Tulsa, Okla., said the saying that “oil and water don't mix” would apply to a leak of the oil sands crude if it were spilled in an underground aquifer. The oil, which he said is less dense than water, would float.
Fisher, who testifies as a legal expert on environmental matters, also addressed the chemicals that would be added to allow the thick Canadian crude to flow through the pipeline. He said those compounds, which include some known to cause cancer, would not move very far in an aquifer.
He was questioned about the 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture in Michigan, which released an estimated 1 million gallons of Canadian oil into the Kalamazoo River. In that spill, some of the oil sank to the river bottom, making cleanup more difficult and costly.
Fisher said that when the heavy crude is exposed to air, its density can increase, causing it to sink. So the oil would behave differently in surface water than it would in an underground water supply, he said.