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Keystone XL Pipeline: Perception vs. Reality

Is it too soon to be writing an opinion piece with potentially political undertones? We don’t think so! Granted, the 2016 election results are still new and some people are not pleased. However, our President has been sworn into office and has not wasted any time in making swift and sometimes controversial decisions. One of those decisions has both direct and indirect impacts on our business and industry as a whole. If you haven’t already guessed, this pertains to the often discussed and somewhat inflammatory Keystone XL Pipeline.

Keystone XL Pipeline: Perception vs. Reality 

This has been a hot topic for many years now, but for the life of me, I cannot comprehend why it has been so provocative and the source of so many heated arguments. That begs the question, are pipelines inherently good or bad? Let’s analyze the Keystone XL Pipeline to further investigate.

Keystone XL Pipeline

Hazardous liquids lines in red and gas transmission lines in blue [source: ProPublica]

First let’s take a bird’s eye view and cover some basics of the United States pipeline infrastructure (see the map above). The USA has the largest network of energy (crude, natural gas, and natural gas liquids) pipelines in the world with more than 2.4 million miles of pipe. Where were the critics of pipelines when this expansive network was being constructed? It seems the opponents of pipelines only appear when something has national attention, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline. But, what other options do operators have to move hydrocarbons? 

As far as the transportation of these products is concerned, there are a few ways to convey product from one location to another. These include: trucking, railways, and pipelines. Of these three options, pipelines are by far the safest and certainly the most efficient. A barrel of product shipped via a pipeline reaches its destination safely more that 99.999% of the time. Even if there is a failure or release, they rarely impact the public or environment with 71% of incidents being contained wholly within an operator’s facility. In addition, since 2011, the number of releases greater than 500 barrels is down 32%. 

Keystone XL Pipeline

Critics of the Keystone XL Pipeline:

Despite these statistics, the Keystone XL Pipeline (see the map depicted below) has been fighting an uphill battle against critics since its first application way back in September of 2008. The journalists over at hit the nail on the head when they pointed out in this statement:

Critics of the Keystone proposal point to the hundreds of pipeline accidents that occur every year. They charge that system wide, antiquated pipes, minimal oversight and inadequate precautions put the public and the environment at increasing risk. Pipeline operators point to billions of dollars spent on new technologies and a gradual improvement over the last two decades as proof of their commitment to safety.

The misconception here, of course, is that the pipeline opponents do not take in account the countless pipelines that operate without incident. Regardless, even if a pipeline does fail, isn’t it better that the failure occurs away from urban areas? If operators were forced to only transport hydrocarbons via trucks or railcars, any incidents would almost certainly impact the public directly. Pipelines are approximately 70 times as safe as trucks, however when a pipeline does fail the consequences can be disastrous. This is the main driver behind the media attention, federal investigation, and opposing activism. 

Will Scrutiny Help?

TransCanada (the owner/operator of the Keystone XL Pipeline) recognizes this and claims that with the heavy scrutiny on their project, the Keystone XL Pipeline will be the safest pipeline in North America. You can be assured that they will have a pervasive Integrity Management Program (IMP) in place for maintaining this high level of safety. The IMP will explain when, how, and how often the pipeline’s integrity will be tested, either via hydrotests or in-line inspections. Additionally, TransCanada researched and evaluated historical spill data determining the components most likely to cause future incidents. These components will be targeted for exclusion from the Keystone XL Pipeline construction. Moreover, TransCanada analyzed the potential impacts to the environment and natural resources (e.g., surface waters and groundwater) establishing mitigation measures designed to prevent, minimize, and respond to spills in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Role of GIS in the Keystone XL Pipeline

Finally, this extreme emphasis on safety is where geographical information systems (GIS) such as Esri’s ArcGIS and other software tools come into play. It is almost guaranteed that TransCanada will employ GIS technology to keep track of the Keystone XL Pipeline’s centerline data, pipeline components, mileages, stationing, elevations, weld information, and IMP data. If TransCanada uses the Esri software stack, they will have access to tools such as Survey123 and ArcGIS Pipeline Referencing (APR). 

Survey123 will allow field technicians, both during construction and normal operation, to capture and upload new data and information seamlessly from the field to the enterprise GIS and presumably standardized pipeline data model. This can be done using any mobile device with the appropriate software install (iOS, Andriod, or Windows). Technicians will be able to take a photo of any new feature (i.e. a weld, pipeline component, corrosion anomaly, etc.) input data regarding the feature and send it back almost real time. In addition, Esri’s new APR extension would allow TransCanada to bring all tasks, workflows, and data back into the core Esri stack and thus streamlining work efficiency (see the picture show below).


Hopefully with a little more education and public awareness, the general population will at last be able to make informed and knowledgeable decisions/opinions regarding pipelines, their safety, and their use. It is hard for pipelines when only the extreme failures are reported on by the media giving them a bad reputation. When in reality, they are the safest and most effective way of transporting fluids across country. It is our job, those in the energy industry, to help inform the ignorant and help turn the public tide in favor of pipelines.

Want to Know More about the New Esri APR Toolset?

Need to know more about APR?  Please reach out to the SSP Marketing team or Pipeline Practice ( regarding more information about Esri’s new extension and the SSP APR Jumpstart package that caters specifically to pipeline operators and their information.


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