CALGARY, Canada — TransCanada Corp., which says Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built, isn't planning to use infrared sensors or fiber-optic cables to detect spills along the system's 2,000-mile path from Canada through Nebraska to Texas.
Pipeline companies have been slow to adopt new leak-detection technology, such as infrared equipment that's mounted on helicopters flying at 80 mph or acoustic sensors that can identify the sound of oil seeping from a pinhole.
They say such gizmos are expensive, unproven and likely to foster a false sense of security.
Instead of such tools, TransCanada plans to watch for spills using software-based methods and traditional fly-overs and surveys.
As pipelines multiply across North America to carry newly booming supplies of oil and natural gas, recent spills have increased concerns about the safety of the conduits, including Keystone XL, which is awaiting U.S. government approval.
“There are lots of things engineering-wise that are possible that the industry doesn't do,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group in Bellingham, Wash.
Although pipeline executives say they're changing their industry's culture to tolerate zero accidents, Weimer said, their companies aren't spending on technology to catch tiny leaks.
And although the so-called external leak detection tools have been recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for the Keystone XL, TransCanada says they are impractical for the entire project.
At the EPA's request, TransCanada is studying whether to add the systems just in the most sensitive environmental areas, said Grady Semmens, a spokesman for the Calgary-based company.
“Leak detection is just one part of a safe pipeline,” Semmens said. “The No. 1 priority is to build a pipeline that prevents leaks.”
Environmental sensitivity is the reason the Nebraska Legislature cited in forcing Trans- Canada to alter the pipeline route around the fragile Sand Hills.
Keystone XL is part of 4.7 million barrels a day of new U.S. oil pipeline capacity expected to be built during the next two years, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, an industry group. About 19.2 million barrels of oil are now transported each day.
Pipelines spilled an average of 112,569 barrels a year in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012, which was a 3.5 percent increase from the previous five-year period, according to Transportation Department figures.
The department is studying leak-detection methods as it considers new safety rules. Spill-spotting equipment now available, if it had been in use nationwide from 2001 to 2011, would have reduced the $1.7 billion in property damage from leaked oil by 75 percent, consultants said in a December report to the department.
Leak-detection technology consists of two kinds, internal and external. Much of the newest technology is external, such as the infrared sensors and fiber-optic cables. Internal systems rely on computers to remotely analyze the oil flow, using sensors in the pipeline that watch for drops in pressure.
Keystone XL would have to be spilling 12,000 barrels a day — or 1.5 percent of its capacity — before its currently planned internal systems would set off an alarm, according to the State Department, which is reviewing the project.
By way of comparison, the leakage from the broken BP well in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010 was estimated at 53,000 barrels a day.
TransCanada would be able to spot leaks at “well below” that 1.5 percent level by analyzing trends in data collected over time, said the firm's vice president of pipeline safety, Vern Meier.
Recent spills have heightened awareness of the importance of detection.
Some 5,000 barrels leaked in March from Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Pegasus pipeline in Arkansas.
A 2010 rupture of an Enbridge Inc. line in Marshall, Mich., gushed more than 20,000 barrels — the same kind of heavy oil that Keystone XL is to carry — into a branch of the Kalamazoo River.
Keystone would carry crude from the sandy soils where it is extracted in Alberta 1,700 miles to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
It would cost TransCanada an additional $705,000 to add a fiber-optic cable to the parts of the pipeline that might affect ecologically sensitive areas, drinking water or populated regions, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg.
The line has 141 miles in such high-consequence areas, according to the State Department.
Other new leak-detection technologies include:
»A device the size of a garbage can, mounted on a helicopter, that detects oil vapors in the infrared rays of sunlight. It can spot leaks flowing at less than 10 barrels a day, says manufacturer Synodon Inc.
»Aluminum balls carried along with the flow inside a pipeline, listening for leaks. Pure Technologies Ltd. says the devices can spot leaks as small as .03 of a gallon — about half a cup — per minute. The EPA originally recommended that TransCanada install some of the latest technology. But in a later report, the State Department questioned the reliability of such gear for the entire length of the pipeline, noting its high cost and variable effectiveness.
“Many of the technologies out there haven't been deployed on that scale,” said TransCanada's Meier.
The Association of Oil Pipe Lines, too, has cautioned against imposing new rules based on unproven technologies and the claims of their vendors.
That's not to say that internal systems, such as the one planned for Keystone XL, have a sterling record of catching leaks. According to the Transportation Department, members of the public reported 23 percent of the 197 pipeline leaks from January 2010 to July 2012. In comparison, it said, pipeline companies and their leak-hunting systems identified 17 percent.
Even without the latest technology, Keystone XL would be at far less risk of a spill than older pipelines that lack any leak-detection systems, automated valves and good-quality steel, said Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust.
“Clearly we've got millions of miles of old pipelines in the ground that are riskier than these new ones they're putting in,” he said. “What they're doing now is better than what's been in the ground for 50 years.”