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Keystone Pipeline

In this 2008 photo, rail cars arrive in Milton, N.D., loaded with pipe for the first Keystone Pipeline project. TransCanada is replacing sections of the route as it prepares to move oil at higher pressure.

TransCanada Corp. plans to dig up and replace sections of its Keystone pipeline found to not meet federal strength standards so the company can begin pumping oil at higher pressure.

Work, slated to begin this month and extend through 2017, will happen in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Illinois and Missouri. The 30-inch pipeline first went into operation in June 2010.

Most oil pipelines in the United States, including Keystone, operate at 72 percent of the minimum pressure that could cause a deformation in the system, which is known as specified minimum yield strength.

TransCanada in 2007 got permission to run its Keystone pipeline at 80 percent, in mostly rural areas, but with a laundry list of safety specifications and conditions. TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said in an email that running at the higher pressure “allows us to be more efficient with our operations to meet customer expectations and demands.” 

And it could mean more money for TransCanada, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the independent pipeline industry consulting company Accufacts Inc.

“They can run it at higher flows, and higher flows means more profit,” Kuprewicz said.

There was a pipeline boom going on when the Keystone was being constructed in the mid to late 2000s. At the same time, commodity metal prices spiked.

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During the boom, several newly constructed pipelines failed stress tests. An investigation by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of seven pipelines found that between 2007 and 2009 a number of pipe mills made substandard steel pipe for pipeline companies.

Those pipes failed to meet government strength standards and could potentially deform under stress causing a leak.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advisory warning pipeline companies of the defective materials. A report by the nonprofit watchdog group Plains Justice detailed the federal investigation and criticized the Pipeline Safety Administration for not doing enough to address the issue.

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After building the Keystone, TransCanada did an in-line inspection which found the pipeline to be safe but did identify some areas that would need to be replaced based on post-construction guidelines for low yield strength, Cunha said. The work has to be done before TransCanada could begin running the Keystone at the higher operating pressure.

The sections of the pipeline to be replaced range from nine to 40 feet long. The Keystone will be shut down for short periods, typically 24 hours and no more than twice in a four-week period, for work to be done.

“TransCanada is working closely with its contracted shippers to minimize the impact to capacity during this maintenance work,” Cunha said.

In Nebraska, work will happen in Stanton, Platte, Colfax and Cedar counties.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com.

 On Twitter @ljsbergin.

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