Joe Brusky
December 12, 2017

Keystone Pipeline Spill: Can TransCanada be Trusted with Another Tar Sands Pipeline?

Shannon Nichols

Two days before the controversial Keystone XL pipeline was granted a permit, its predecessor Keystone I leaked thousands of gallons of oil into South Dakota soil.

The Nov. 16 spill should come as no surprise, as it follows in the wake of several high-profile spills along the length of the Keystone pipeline in previous years. This newest spill of 5,000 barrels marks the largest Keystone spill to date since the project came online in June 2010. Investigators believe the spill is a result of construction damage in a specific section of the pipeline.

As clean-up continues and excavation of the damage moves forward, the reported amount of the spill can likely still increase—especially given that tar sands oil is notoriously difficult to clean up. The oil transported by Keystone I is a mixture of heavy oil sands with a thinner oil to make it viscous. A spill could cause the components to separate, allowing the oil sand to sink and make it more difficult to clean up. Cleanup, similarly, is exceptionally difficult in in waterways.

The spillage of tar sands crude into South Dakota soil reveals the high rate at which pipelines leak. Before construction of Keystone I, TransCanada provided spill risk assessments done by a global risk management company, DNV GL. Such estimates are important for permit acquisition, with low spill risk being a necessary requirement for meeting environmental safety regulations. TransCanada’s original estimates estimated that the pipeline should only spill once every seven years, yet it spilled 12 times in its first year. In South Dakota alone, Keystone I has had two major spills—despite estimates that it should only spill there only once every 41 years.

Keystone I’s high rate of failure draws into question the credibility of the estimates for TransCanada’s future pipeline, Keystone XL (KXL). Current estimates speculate that KXL should, at most, only leak 2.2 times per decade for small spills, and once every century for spills over 1,000 barrels.

Keystone XL, a controversial extension project denied during the Obama administration, was under permit deliberation in Nebraska at the time the Keystone I South Dakota spill was making headlines. Regardless of estimate credibility, the commission that decided on the new pipeline project was—under Nebraska law—barred from considering the possibility of spills or pipeline safety in their ruling. So, without adequate consideration of spills, the last permit for the route of Keystone XL was granted by the Nebraska Public Service Commission on Nov. 20 of this year. However, the alternative route that was approved was not the route originally reviewed, and no landowners along the route were consulted in the process. While it has a permit to move forward, the KXL project hangs in the balance; now, there are new agreements that must be reached with landowners along the alternative route.

In the reroute process, TransCanada will continue to face intense backlash from Nebraskan landowners, indigenous community members, and anti-pipeline activists who have vowed to continue the fight as long as necessary.

Keystone’s spill comes a little under a year after the #NoDAPL protests in Standing Rock, North Dakota, which raised concerns over Native American sovereignty and the environmental impact of oil pipelines. One of the chief concerns of the movement was that the Dakota Access pipeline has the potential to pollute Lake Oahe: a vital body of water to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that plays a role in many important religious ceremonies. This parallels a concern over the KXL pipeline—it could pollute the Ogallala aquifer, which provides much of the water used for agriculture in the central United States. Without this water, the state of food production that occurs in much of this area would be greatly at stake.

In a hopeful twist, South Dakota regulators are investigating the Keystone leak to see if it resulted from operation or construction of the pipeline in breach of TransCanada’s permit. Many of the conditions covered effective construction, operation, and environmental safety standards for the pipeline. If the cause of the spill is found to be negligence on the part of TransCanada by violating permit regulations, it could result in the closure of the pipeline for a period of time or complete revocation of their permit.

Unfortunately, Keystone I resumed flow on Nov. 26, which is only two weeks after the initial spill. TransCanada must run it at a 20 percent pressure reduction on the orders of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, however, for an indeterminate amount of time. This comes before cleanup is complete and the cause of the spill reliably verified.

Certainly, the best type of oil is that which stays in the ground. It should not take a large spill threatening the land or livelihoods of people in order for Natives, landowners, and scientists to be heard. Consider spills like Deepwater Horizon, which leaked oil deep into the Gulf of Mexico. Not all of the spilled oil is visible on the surface and the effects are long-lasting and not entirely known.

One thing continues to be abundantly clear: the only way to be certain that no spills will occur is by not extracting in the first place. How, then, can the people trust TransCanada to properly run Keystone XL, if it cannot properly run Keystone I?