Finding a Leak in a 4,300-Kilometer Pipeline Be Like:

Johnny Wentzel
Where's Waldo?
Courtesy of GIPHY

If operating a 4,300-kilometer (2,700-mile) pipeline system wasn’t challenging enough, detecting and isolating leaks is like the world’s hardest game of Where’s Waldo.

What happened: The Keystone Pipeline, responsible for transporting over 600,000 barrels of oil from Alberta to Illinois and Texas daily, spilled a reported 14,000 barrels of crude oil into Kansas earlier this week.

The line has since been shut down while crews search for the root cause.

A major artery for Western Canadian energy

While Alberta remains one of the leading energy producing regions in North America, it continues to suffer from two fatal flaws:

  1. Albertan city-folk seem to think it’s okay to dress up like cowboys and cowgirls every July.
  2. The province is completely land-locked, making limited export capacity critical for its products to access international markets.

While a global lockdown has been the only thing capable of resolving the cowboy problem, the export problem means Alberta’s energy producers must accept lower-than-benchmark prices for their products—today the discount is around $20 per barrel.

If Keystone Pipeline isn’t returned to service soon, that discount is only expected to increase as the province is just shy of its export limits.

Zoom out: Despite continued advancement in leak detection and prevention, today’s pipelines still rely on well-established emergency response protocols to secure leaks. This occasionally results in an immediate shut down to limit environmental damage.

In the meantime, until the Keystone Pipeline is repaired and returned to service, the only thing that cowboy-hat-wearing Alberta can do is find other pipelines, load up railcars, and continue to sell their products for less than they’re worth.
+Additional reading: Keystone Pipeline Leaks 14,000 barrels

+Visualized: Comparing Pipelines with Crude-By-Rail (2019)