'Construction Issues' Responsible for Keystone Pipeline Spills, Government Watchdog Says

Construction issues, manufacturing problems and design flaws all contributed to the Keystone pipeline's leaking of more than 11,000 barrels of oil over less than two years, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found.

Following two major spills over the two years, lawmakers called on the GAO to initiate an investigation into the pipeline in November 2019. Prior to the pipeline's construction, its operator TC Energy requested and obtained permits from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to operate the pipeline at higher stress level than normally allowed.

Since then, TC has stood as the first and only pipeline operator to request a waiver for this regulation, the GAO reports. The unusual nature of this permit served as a driver in the GAO investigations into how the pipeline operated and fared in its number of accidents compared to its peers. The investigation yielded the following statement:

"In response to each of Keystone's four largest spills, PHMSA issued Corrective Action Orders requiring TC Energy to take several actions, including engaging a PHMSA-approved independent consultant to conduct a Root Cause Failure Analysis which found the accidents stemmed from construction issues," the GAO report read. "The Root Cause Failure Analysis, conducted by a third party, indicated that the four accidents were caused by issues related to the original design, manufacturing of the pipe, or construction of the pipeline."

Activists In Chicago Protest Against Dakota Pipeline
The Keystone pipeline leaked over 11,000 barrels of oil over two years. Above, demonstrators march through downtown while protesting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on February 4, 2017 in Chicago, after President Donald Trump signed executive actions to advance approval of Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The report went on to detail the issues associated with the pipeline's construction, manufacturing, and design that could have played a role in the pipe's leaks.

President Joe Biden canceled the permits for a Keystone XL extension on his first day in office. This move effectively ended a project that would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to Nebraska. The House committees on Energy and Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure cited the GAO report as an affirmation of Biden's decision.

"While corrosion was the industry's leading cause of such accidents on crude oil pipelines, half of Keystone's accidents were caused by material failure of the pipe or weld," the Energy Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) wrote in a statement. "President Biden was clearly right to question this operator's ability to construct a safe and resilient pipeline, and we support his decision to put Americans' health and environment above industry interests."

TC officially canceled the $9 million XL pipeline in June. It has since filed a legacy North American Free Trade Agreement claim seeking more than $15 billion in damages from the U.S. government. In response to the GAO report, TC told Reuters the company has had "zero high-impact incidents in 18 months" after taking steps to strengthen safety measures.