Jobs in the pipeline

By Nick Wright

For Keystone XL, welders have advanced technology and testing at their fingertips, but a decision on the project awaits

May 2014 - Not far from the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states, Steele City, Neb., is a critical waypoint for completing one of the largest proposed infrastructure projects in the United States: the Keystone XL pipeline. Whether the extension to the existing Keystone Pipeline from Alberta to Texas is finished hinges on approval from President Obama, leaving the project, Canada and most importantly, American workers in limbo. 

The State Department in January released its final environmental study of the hotly debated Keystone XL, finding little evidence that its completion—bringing Canadian crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, south to Port Arthur, Texas—would exacerbate climate change. The project is expected to generate 42,000 direct and indirect jobs if the president approves it, according to the study. Hundreds of those jobs would put America’s welders to work who have the advanced skills required to join sections of pipe together with automatic and manual welding systems.


The southern half of the pipeline, from the Gulf of Mexico at Port Arthur, Texas, to Cushing, Okla., is already complete. That section is known as the Gulf Coast Pipeline, and began pumping oil within the last six months. Oil is transported through existing Keystone Pipeline along the 300-mile stretch from Cushing to Steele City. It’s the 1,179-mile extension from Nebraska to Alberta that is creating headlines or headaches, depending on who you ask. For pipeline welders, the project represents not only income, but a chance to demonstrate modern welding methods that reflect the industry’s ingenuity and technology.

People on the pipeline

Although the pipeline is owned by Calgary-based energy company TransCanada Corp., most of the Keystone XL lies within U.S. borders. Like any big infrastructure project, pipe welders are contracted through construction outfits working for TransCanada. A joint venture of U.S.-based contractors, including Michels Corp., Price-Gregory International and Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Co., works with TransCanada to specify suitable welding methods for sections of pipe depending on the terrain and materials to be joined. 

Under a separate contract, Sunland Construction Inc. represents the American contractors awarded pipeline work in the United States. All told, these companies employ close to 17,000 pipeline construction workers across North America. TransCanada employed 4,844 Americans in Texas and Oklahoma on the $2.3-billion Gulf Coast Pipeline Project alone.


The entire pipeline is 36-in. diameter in grades X-70 and X-80 steel. About 75 percent of the steel for the project is manufactured in North America, according to TransCanada. Some 660,000 tons of the 821,000 tons of high-strength pipe will be laid in U.S. soil. Fifty percent (332,800 tons) of it is supplied by Welspun in Little Rock, Ark., while the rest comes from Evraz North America in Regina, Saskatchewan, ILVA in Italy, and a Welspun facility in India.

Danny Hendrix, business manager for Pipeliners Union Local 798, Tulsa, Okla., says the automatic welding for each section of pipe happens inside what’s called a welding shack. Local 798 trains welders specifically on the methods used to weld the Keystone Pipeline and the Gulf Coast Pipeline.

Inside the shacks, two welders and two assistants control two “bug” style welders, which are mounted to a circular metal band clamped concentrically to the pipe. There are often five or six shacks working on separate joints simultaneously. At 12 ft. by 8 ft., the shacks are about the size of a storage shed and protect workers from the elements.

“Depending on the [pipe’s] wall thickness, they’ll run a single-pass [weld]. That’s what their bug is programmed to do, and that’s the only pass they put it in,” Hendrix says. Truck-mounted cranes lift the shacks to the next joint. “Then the next shack will put a pass on top of that. It could apply three to five passes, depending on how thick the pipe is.”


Assuming everything is running smoothly, the process takes less than five minutes, after which a finished weld exits the back end of what’s essentially a moving assembly line. An example of the automatic welders is the Saturnax 09 made by Houston-based Serimax. It was incorporated into 16 automatic welding stations in Texas and Oklahoma, according to company documents. The Saturnax 09 made more than 22,000 welds in 36 in. X-70 pipe with wall thicknesses ranging from 11.8 mm to 19 mm, a mere fraction of the overall job. Automatic welding equipment maker CRC-Evans’ products were used on the original Keystone Pipeline.

The individual joints of pipe are generally 120 ft. long, according to TransCanada. For lowering into the ditch, they are welded into sections of pipe that range from 160 ft. to a maximum of 8,000 ft., dictated by the type of installation (creek crossing, horizontal direction drill crossing, road/railroad crossing or mainline construction). For mainline construction, TransCanada limits the continuous length of pipe to be welded together with gaps for passage of temporary private access roads, livestock and wildlife.


Training for the field

All the welding is held to federal code 49 CFR 195, which governs hazardous material pipelines, and industry standards (API and ASME). TransCanada has governing specifications for various welding methods concerning pipeline right-of-way, facility sites and shop 

fabrication welding (e.g. automatic, semi-automatic and manual), says Davis Sheremata, external communications manager at TransCanada. “The welding procedures must be tested prior to their usage and the welders must be individually tested and qualified to use each specific procedure.”

While images of pipeline worksites show excavated trenches, workers in hardhats and pipe awaiting installation, the procedures are extremely structured and workers are rigorously trained. For the southern half of Keystone XL (the 485-mile Gulf Coast Pipeline Project), Local 798 supplied about 350 qualified pipeliners, which includes welders, helpers and journeymen who align and join pipe. They trained at the union’s $5 million training center in Tulsa, which covers all methods of welding for cross-country transmission pipelines.

FFJ-0514-welding-image5“Primarily in this country, about 85 to 90 percent of the work is done traditionally with stick rod and SMAW processes. That’s the way most people build pipelines until you get into large-diameter, long-mileage pipe,” says Hendrix. Training involves some worksite-specific training for the 

automatic welders. Welders always train on-site for four or five days until everyone gets up to par and the contractors are satisfied. Welders train inside the welding shacks, and every aspect of the process gets certified before the job begins.

“This is what they call qualifying the shack,” he says. For the sections not welded with automatic welders in the shack, welding crews stick-rod-weld the joints, which sometimes involves precarious positions like vertical overhead welding. Internal welding machines, which align and weld pipe from the inside, are also used.

Testing, inspection

The inspection work on the pipeline is as equally regimented as the welding. Multiple methods are used, including ultrasonic testing (UT) or radiographics (X-ray), says Hendrix. In some cases, they’re both used. The testing crews are also qualified before they work. 

Josh Osmun, a radiographic technician who worked on the Keystone Pipeline in Nebraska and South Dakota in 2009, says a motorized internal X-ray machine is inserted inside the pipe, which then crawls through until it comes to a difference in the metal surface, or weld. 

“We then take film and wrap it around the weld. We remotely signal the internal X-ray machine to start emitting X-rays,” he says. The X-rays penetrate the metal, exiting the weld through the film, leaving an image on the film. 

After the film is processed, it’s examined for defects. A code book lists potential defects, like slag, cracks, gas pockets, undercutting, internal undercut, external undercut, arc burns, pin holes and several others. “If there is an indication found, we will mark the indicated area on the weld for a repair. When the welder is finished, we X-ray the weld again to see if the indication was successfully repaired,” Osmun says.

There are differences of opinion in the industry about which testing method is more effective, says Hendrix. “UT is quicker as far as shooting the weld and getting the results. I don’t know that it’s cheaper, but the radiographic people are fighting for their place in the industry.”

After testing, there’s a raw weld to externally coat. The several inches of pipe on either side of the weld get sandblasted and fireblasted before an electronic heating ring is attached, Hendrix explains. That ring heats the weld between 400 F and 500 F, at which point a fusion bond epoxy coating is applied. The electronic charge sucks the epoxy onto the weld like a magnet. “It looks like a powder coat when it’s done,” he says.

The pipes are already pre-coated when they show up to the worksite, according to TransCanada. Field welds (areas that join the pipes together) and any abrasions or damage to the coating that occurs during transport and handling are coated with a brush or spray-grade, two-part liquid epoxy. “These coating systems work in conjunction with the pipeline’s cathodic protection system to mitigate any risk of external corrosion to the pipeline. It is not necessary or required to internally coat the pipe,” says Sheremata. Periodic internal cleaning inspections to sweep the interior of the pipeline, as well as random product sampling occur to prevent internal corrosion. Chemical corrosion inhibitors, biocides, corrosion coupons or probes are deployed as necessary.

Ensuring the pipe joints are sound is key for maintaining pressure so oil can flow. To that end, there are pump stations about every 50 miles on the pipeline. They also function as remote monitors.


Laying pipe issues

Absent Keystone XL, there are already about 180,000 miles of petroleum transmission pipelines woven throughout the United States, according to the American Petroleum Institute, Washington, D.C. If the leg from Steele City to Alberta is built, Keystone XL, along with the Gulf Coast Pipeline, would total 1,600 miles—less than 1 percent of all existing oil pipelines. Yet, the opposition to the pipeline is stronger than that of the original Keystone Pipeline, which many people don’t realize exists, Hendrix says. “This is the most debated pipeline in history.”

That’s part of the reason the Gulf Coast Pipeline was split off from the whole Keystone XL permit process. Essentially rebranding it allowed it to get built as a stand-alone project with its own independent value to the marketplace.

One way or another, the oil from Alberta’s Hardisty oil sands will make its way to market, either via rail or other pipelines, critics say. Hendrix notes that today’s engineers are smarter, technology has matured and “our knowledge of the uses of metals and high-tensile strength steel, rods and wire” is advanced. “But these people opposing it don’t think we can meet those challenges,” he says. 

The job’s biggest challenges aren’t so much work-related, because the process is structured, tolerances clear and reliance on others is critical. It’s being away from family for months straight, as well as working in extreme climates, that can be taxing, Hendrix says. But some welders and pipeliners can take home a year’s worth of income in just a few months, which is the lifeline for those back home. Whether American welders and workers will get to take advantage of the remaining Keystone XL pipeline has yet to be determined. FFJ


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