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GAO: Keystone Pipeline Leaks Resulted from TransCanada/TC Energy’s Shoddy Work

Remember the Keystone pipeline—no, not the XL one that both Presidents Obama and Biden wisely killed, but the original Keystone pipeline, the one whee we allowed a Canadian company to use eminent domain to shove a 36-inch pile through our East River, the one whose defective imported steel has had more leaks and anomalies than expected? A new report from the Government Accountability Office released Monday finds that the Keystone pipeline’s poor performance were not acts of God but results of shoddy work by its builder, TransCanada, now TC Energy:

In response to each of Keystone’s four largest spills, [the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] issued Corrective Action Orders requiring TC Energy to investigate the accidents’ root causes and take necessary corrective actions. These investigations found that the four accidents were caused by issues related to the original design, manufacturing of the pipe, or construction of the pipeline. PHMSA also issued other enforcement actions and assessed civil penalties to TC Energy for deficiencies found during inspections, such as inadequate corrosion prevention and missing pipeline markers. Based in part on its experience overseeing Keystone, PHMSA officials said they have increased resources to conduct inspections during construction of other pipelines and are establishing a more formal process to document and track the compliance of all special permits, including Keystone’s permit [Government Accountability Office, “Pipeline Safety: Information on Keystone Accidents and DOT Oversight—Highlights,” GAO-21-588].

The GAO notes that TransCanada requested (and received from PHMSA, with 51 conditions) a special permit allowing it to operate the pipeline at higher pressure and build Keystone with thinner steel to “reduce steel costs by approximately 10 percent while still maintaining high standards of safety” [full report, p. 10]. However, TransCanada didn’t get to operate Keystone at maximum pressure along its entire route until 2017, seven years after it opened the spigot in Hardisty, Alberta, because the company had to dig up and replace bad pipe and shoddy welds. Keystone’s two biggest leaks, in Marshall County in November 2017 and up in Walsh County, North Dakota, in October 2019, happened after TransCanada cranked up the pressure. But PHMSA officials say the major spills from the Keystone pipeline resulted not from the specially permitted high pressure but from poor workmanship:

PHMSA officials stated that based on their review of the Root Cause Failure Analysis reports, they not believe that the operating stress level of the pipeline would have had an effect, as both accidents were caused by a fatigue failure related to pre-existing flaws or defects.

PHMSA’s accident data suggest that construction issues may be a more frequent contributor to Keystone’s accidents impacting people or the environment when compared to causes for such accidents for pipelines nationwide. PHMSA reports that from 2010 to 2020, 12 percent of all accidents impacting people or the environment (119 of 981) on pipelines carrying crude oil, refined oil products, or biofuels were caused by a material failure of the pipe or weld, such as defects in the steel material or welds used in manufacturing the pipe or joining pipe during construction.

By comparison, half (3 of 6) of Keystone’s accidents impacting people or the environment were caused by material failure of pipe or weld. Specifically, the two accidents in South Dakota in 2016 and in 2017 were caused by issues in the construction, installation, or fabrication of the pipeline, while the 2019 North Dakota accident was caused by defects in the original pipe manufacturing [GAO-21-588, July 2021, pp. 24–25].

Even with its shoddy work, TransCanada/TC Energy has still posted spill rates below the national average over the period of Keystone’s operation, both in volume of oil spilled and number of noteworthy incidents:

GAO-21-588, July 2021, p. 21.
GAO-21-588, July 2021, p. 21.
GAO-21-588, July 2021, p. 22.
GAO-21-588, July 2021, p. 22.

Nonetheless, the Congressmen who requested this GAO report after Keystone’s 2019 leak in North Dakota, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and House Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said the GAO’s report shows President Biden was right to cancel TransCanada/TC Energy’s bid to slap together another leaky pipeline:

“GAO’s report validates President Biden’s decision to revoke the permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline,” DeFazio and Pallone said in a joint 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” [Ben LeFebvre, “Severe Oil Leaks Worsened Keystone Pipeline’s Spill Record, GAO Finds,” Politico, 2021.08.23].

But we still have to keep a close eye on the original Keystone pipeline as we live with the legacy of TransCanada’s shoddy workmanship for years to come.


  1. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-25

    well…sooner or later, everything leaks. Rust, never sleeps.

  2. Guy 2021-08-25

    Well, Arlo, Keystone/Trans Canada is not that old of a pipeline. If its leaking now, I would hate to think what it would be like when it actually gets old!!!

  3. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-25

    Giuy–some time ago on this blog, I related the story of having worked for a couple weeks back in the 60’s on a gas pipeline being built in the Redfield to Wolsey area. I worked with the welders from Oklahoma in a grunt job and drank beer with them,after work. They had just come from building a gigantic pipeline in Saudi Arabia (“ain’t no honky tonks or wine shops there”) and thought that project was “rinky-dink”. They were looking forward to their company getting a bid for the Alaskan pipeline. They took great pride in their work (“I can run a bead in the dark”) but occasionally “screwed the pup”…made a bad weld. They hated to break the weld and start again so they had various half way measures they used to go over the weld so that “It’ll look good enough to the X Ray Hand if he’s hung over”. The fella who X Rayed the welds was a whiskey drinker. I have no idea what the lifespan of that pipeline was but came away knowing that pipelines, like everything else, are made by human beings with all kinds of strengths and weaknesses.

  4. cibvet 2021-08-25

    Bid a job cheap, get cost over runs, or finish a job early, get paid a bonus. What could go wrong with those policies??

  5. Guy 2021-08-25

    Arlo, the issues surrounding the Keystone/TransCanada pipeline do not sound like the “occasional screw-up”.

  6. kurtz 2021-08-26

    Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline expressed joy over the action by President Joe Biden to revoke approval of the controversial oil pipeline set to flow through Nebraska. ‘I can’t stop laughing,” anti-pipeline pioneer Jane Kleeb said. ‘I always knew this day would come.’”

    After the defeat of KXL Turner Ranches and SDSU partnered for a Sandhills initiative.

    Only 3 percent of the Earth’s land surface remains untouched by human development and a sixth mass extinction is underway. Urban sprawl, accelerated global warming and drought are reducing productivity on the remaining grasslands of the Great Plains, writes Dr. Jeff Martin. He’s the Director of Research at the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies at South Dakota State University.

    In July Turner Enterprises, Inc. and Turner Ranches announced the launch of the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, Inc. a 501(c)(3) public charity and agricultural research organization that will share a formal agreement, facilities and staff with the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies.

  7. Kent Frerichs 2021-08-29

    The travesty of these oil leaks/spills is that TransCanada (TC Energy) has refused to pay into the “Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund” (9 cents per barrel). Resisting their responsibility for this obligation results in more than a $23 Million Dollar annual windfall for TC Energy. Regardless of whether you support oil pipelines, or not, TC Energy should have to pay into this “Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund”. All other pipelines (example: Dakota Access) do pay into this fund. This shortcoming of TC Energy places the economic and environmental well being of South Dakota at risk. The Keystone Pipeline was installed in South Dakota in 2010 and passes through twelve counties. TC Energy has avoided paying into this fund because of a tax loophole. Tar Sands/Dilbit wasn’t included in the definition of oil when the “Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund” was first established in 1986. The US Senate and House have had numerous opportunities to eliminate this tax loophole, however they have refused to include Tar Sands/Dilbit in the statute. Both Senator Thune and Senator Rounds and all of the Republicans have voted against requiring TC Energy to pay into this fund. All of the Democrats voted to include Tar Sands/Dilbit in the definition of who has to pay into this fund. Representative Johnson has also had ample opportunity and failed to have Tar Sands/Dilbit included in the tax code.
    In light of the incriminating GAO Report, I believe the South Dakota PUC should have the right to step in and require strict monitoring oversight and some additional requirements to protect the environment and benefit of landowners, local and state government.

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