The Keystone Pipeline, the subject of one of the largest environmental campaigns in North American history has sprung a leak. TransCanada, the pipeline’s owner has admitted that 5,000 barrels of oil, or 800,000 liters (210,000 gallons), has escaped. A spill is classed as significant if more than 50 barrels of oil escape.
The Keystone Pipeline brings diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta, supplemented with light crude oil from Montana and North Dakota to refineries in Illinois and Texas, from where gasoline can be sold to the world. Although the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline’s expansion Keystone XL in 2015, it is nevertheless capable of transporting 590,000 barrels a day. Most of the opposition to the pipeline was motivated by the extraordinary greenhouse intensity of the oil being transported, but there was also extensive concern about the likelihood leaks would occur. Just as with the Dakota Access pipeline, which attracted intense protests last year, the owners dismissed these fears as unfounded.
At 5:30am local time on Thursday TransCanada detected a drop in pressure near the town of Amherst South Dakota. According to TransCanada the pipeline was shut off within 15 minutes, but the largest leak in the Keystone’s history had already occurred. South Dakota government officials were alerted five hours later. Updates are being reported on the company’s website.
The leak has taken place away from surface water, improving the chances that the effects will be localized to the grazing land on which it occurred. However, Ruth Hopkins, a Lakota writer and activist has noted the location appears to be close to the aquifer on which the Lake Traverse Reservation depends.
Even if the spill does not pollute the aquifer, it will stoke opposition to Keystone XL, now back on the agenda since President Trump overturned Obama’s ban. It is also bad news for other oil pipelines, like the nearby Dakota Access, which had a much smaller leak of its own back in May.
New oil pipelines need state approval as well as federal, and Nebraska’s Public Service Commission is to vote in the next few days over whether to allow Keystone XL to proceed across the state. The proposed route through Nebraska has already been changed to avoid the sensitive Sandhills region, and the leak could inspire a second rejection. An analysis of Keystone XL’s dangers considered a worst-case scenario to be a Nebraskan spill 36 times the size of this one.
The northern pipeline from Alberta to Illinois via Nebraska remains shut off at time of writing while attempts are made to fix the leak, but the southern stretch continues to operate.
The dark smudge represents the oil spreading from the Keystone Pipeline leak as seen from the air. TransCanada
By Stephen Luntz