Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Keystone pipeline: Gold mine or environmental disaster?

Keystone pipeline: Gold mine or environmental disaster?

The governor wants the pipeline for the jobs, county commissioners want the pipeline for the property taxes and local businesses want the pipeline for the economic activity generated by the construction and operation of the pipeline.

The proposed 36-inch-diameter pipeline will operate at a pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch or about twice the pressure of most crude-oil pipelines and about 25 times the pressure in a city water distribution system. A fire hose connected to a city water supply can spray water a distance of 200 feet while a break in the pipeline could, in theory, spray oil 5,000 feet. If a valve in the pipeline is closed too rapidly, a 300 psi pressure surge will be generated and the total pressure in the pipeline will be 1,800 psi.

Pipeline safety regulations require that the wall thickness be 0.748 inches. The Keystone pipeline proposed for Eastern Montana will have a wall thickness of 0.465 inches or about half that required by regulation. At a pressure of 1,800 psi and a wall thickness of 0.465 inches, stress in the pipeline will be 70,000 psi, which is equal to the yield stress of the steel, and the pipeline will probably rupture. The highest pressure in the pipeline will occur where the elevation is the lowest or at stream crossings.

Risking oil spills

Having a simple operational error causing a major oil spill is unacceptable. Pressure surges in long pipelines are common and are generally caused by valve movement, check valves, pump startup and power failure.

Pipeline safety regulations in both the U. S. and Canada require that the factor of safety (bursting stress divided by the operating stress) be not less than 2.0. So why is Keystone Pipeline proposing a safety factor of 1.2 for Montana?

Apparently, it is cheaper for Keystone to pay for oil spill cleanup than to build a safe pipeline and prevent oil spills. It's like a farmer buying car tires for his truck because they are cheaper. Operating at a pressure of 100 psi, he may be able to haul several loads on a smooth pavement, but in the long run you know that there will be trouble down the road. This is equally true of the pipeline. Over the 50-year life of the project, corrosion will reduce the wall thickness of the pipeline. Leaks and ruptures will become more frequent. If the pipe is made in China, there will also be quality control issues with the manufacturing.

Economic pressure
The original design using standard wall thickness pipe was economically feasible only when the price of crude oil was over $100 per barrel. Now that the price of crude oil is under $100 per barrel, the pipeline is apparently feasible only if Keystone Pipeline can use cheaper thin-walled pipe. If Keystone Pipeline's request to use thin-walled pipe is approved by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the company will end up with a gold mine and we will end up with an environmental disaster in our backyard.

This pipeline runs through our James family homestead east of Circle for a distance of two miles. I am concerned that it will be substandard and unsafe to live near. When I get all the data on the pipeline, I plan to develop an unsteady-state computer model of the pipeline to see where the pipeline will rupture. Why? Because this is the type of work that I have been doing for the last 40 years. Landowners should have this information before they sign an easement.

Wesley P. James of Bigfork is retired from a career teaching hydraulics at Texas A&M University.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.


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