TransCanada Showcases Automation on Keystone XL Pipeline

Nov. 14, 2014
Six years into a wait for the approvals to operate the newest section of the Keystone Pipeline system, TransCanada has already spent $2.4 billion on the project.

TransCanada had hoped that it would have the permits for its Keystone XL pipeline within two years, since the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline system was reviewed and approved in 23 months. But it’s been more than six years since TransCanada filed its application to build the Keystone XL expansion, and it has still not been approved.

Facing environmental pressures from his liberal base if he approves the pipeline and strife from labor unions and others if he opposes it, U.S. President Barack Obama has chosen instead to waylay the decision with a stalled State Department review. But Congress appears to be forcing the issue, with news going out this week that two bills could soon come to a vote to authorize Keystone XL. The House voted today 252-161 to approve Keystone XL.

Once operational, the nearly 1,200 miles of pipeline would become part of the existing Keystone system, creating a faster route for getting product from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the pipes are already in place, along with an automation system that sends more than 20,000 points of data from pump stations along the pipeline to an oil control center in Calgary every 5 seconds.

Siemens—which has provided primarily pumps, motors, drive systems and switchgear to the project—brought a handful of industry journalists out to a pump station in Stanton, Neb., this week to help TransCanada folks show off the automation and operations at the site.

TransCanada has spent $2.4 billion on the system already—buying motors, pipes, and “bits and pieces scattered in warehouses over North America, waiting to be used,” said Corey Goulet, president of Keystone Pipeline.

There are generally pump stations every 50 miles or so along the pipeline to help the oil reach its destination. “Today it takes 56 pumping stations to get from Hardisty to the Gulf Coast. With Keystone XL, there will be 36 pump stations,” Goulet said. “We can get oil from the western Canadian sedimentary basin to the Gulf Coast in less than a month. No other pipeline can do that. That’s important because there’s a value associated with getting it there quickly.”

The Keystone Pipeline thus far has been a collection of sections. It began with the Northern Border Pipeline, which connects Canadian production down to the Midwest states, where gas is delivered. The base Keystone section went into operation around 2010, and is made up of 275 miles of pipe with five pump stations.

Another section of the pipeline, completed in late 2011/early 2012, connects Steele City, Neb., to Cushing, Okla. Another section then connects Cushing to Nederland, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. TransCanada just recently completed a 50-mile segment of pipeline to Houston to help meet refining capacity (see map, above).

Today, the Keystone Pipeline has a switch valve in Steele City that has it running sometimes to the Gulf Coast and other times to Patoka and Wood River in Illinois. Once Keystone XL is in place, that won’t be necessary, with the old stretch going to Illinois and the new stretch carrying oil to the Gulf Coast.

The new Keystone XL stretch is significant because it’s a 1,200-mile system that’s been built from the ground up, Goulet noted. The TransCanada and Siemens executives focused on the scalability of the system—how easy it is to program and maintain, and how easy it is to add pumps as well, noted Ted Fowler, senior automation engineer for oil and gas at Siemens.

“We’ve gone through an entire expansion project already. After the first round of production was done and complete, we went through an entire second project,” said Brad Wojcik, senior project manager at Siemens. “We design and build it modularly, so if you need to make it bigger or larger, you just add modules. And everything is pre-tested.”

The Stanton pump station moves roughly 550,000 barrels of oil a day, according to Virgil Pfennig, manager of the pump station. The station is equipped with four motors that drive the pumps sending the oil through the system. One of those motors is a variable-frequency drive (VFD) that enables variations in the pumping power to accommodate different types of crudes, and also enables a soft start of the system.

In addition to transporting crude oil from Canada, the Keystone XL Pipeline will carry oil from other producers in Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and North Dakota. “Keystone has 47 different approved commodities,” Pfennig said. “There can be 100 different batches in the line at any given time.”

The pumps regulate the flow with varying pressures. “As oil comes into the first pump, it’s roughly 290 psi,” Pfennig explained. “Each pump will increase the pressure. But not all four pumps have to run. It’ll totally depend on the grade of the crude coming through. We can look at the density to see what kind of grade crude is going through.”

If the VFD is not able to regulate the flow of the oil, a pressure control valve (PCV) serves as a failsafe. However, a new system has been designed to manage the flow entirely through VFDs, Goulet said, with no PCVs needed.

The VFD system is not allowed to exceed 110 percent maximum licensed operating pressure (MOP). It’s designed for failsafe, Pfennig said, so if it went over that pressure, everything would shut down.

The site is monitored primarily through the oil control center in Calgary, which has three consoles—one for monitoring the pipeline and pump stations, one for the terminals, and one to monitor the leak detection system (LDS). The station is unmanned, but someone is always on call, noted Kelly Pfaff, controls technician at the Stanton site.

Communications of data is typically through satellite connections, though there is a landline backup if needed, Pfennig noted. “All data is received from each pump station, terminal and delivery station every 5 seconds and each valve site every 30 seconds. It’s pretty real time,” Pfennig said. Two different satellites are alternated between pump stations so that communication is not lost to any two pump stations in a row, he added.

Keystone has a full line shutdown about once a year, Goulet estimated. That’s not easy to do with a batched system. But the executives seemed proud of the fact that they have shut the line down based on a call from a farmer—shutting it down, investigating, then starting it up again. Goulet mentioned the lessons learned from other pipelines that investigated first before shutting down, like with the oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, caused by a burst pipeline there.

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