Keystone spill is more proof that pipelines are unsafe at any speed


It happened again. Another oil spill, and another claim by a Big Energy company that the environmental impact is minimal. Then, a day or two later, or maybe even longer, the world learns somehow that the spill is much larger than was originally announced, and that the ecological damage is a lot more severe.

The most extreme example of this Big Oil dishonesty, of course was what happened in home state of Louisiana, when BP tried to assure the public that only a minor leak had occurred from the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. It was several days before we learned that the largest spill in American history was taking place, and not much longer after that it was confirmed that BP knew it was misleading the public. But just in the last year or so, we’ve seen similar cases of obfuscation with the large offshore oil spill in the Pacific near Santa Barbara and — also in California — with the giant leak of methane from an underground storage site near Los Angeles.

Now, we’re learning that a leak from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota was about 89 times worse than first reported:

Nearly a week after pipeline operator TransCanada shut down a section of its Keystone line over an oil leak, the company reported Thursday thousands of gallons of oil were spilled, not less than 200 as it first said.

Based on soil excavations, TransCanada said about 16,800 gallons of oil leaked onto a field in South Dakota, the Associated Press reported. After the leak was discovered Saturday and the line was shut, TransCanada said about 187 gallons of crude oil had spilled, an accident that environmental groups said shows the dangers of shipping oil by pipeline. Though the spill is larger than first thought, it poses no significant environmental effects or threats to public safety, the AP said. However, Keystone transports Canadian tar sands oil, which is more difficult to clean than conventional oil.

The company behind the rejected Keystone XL line has yet to reveal what caused the leak, but it said the spill is being controlled, and reported the new estimates to the National Response Center and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration. The pipeline is part of the existing Keystone network that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would have expanded. It runs from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma via the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. TransCanada said the pipeline won’t be fully operational until early next week. So far some 100 workers are at the site, located about four miles from Hutchinson County.

Misreported leak volumes often occur following oil spills as companies investigate accidents and discover oil seeped deeper in the ground or waterways than they first thought.

This Keystone Pipeline is essentially the older cousin of the Keystone XL proposal that generated so much controversy for several years, before it was ultimately blocked by the Obama administration. Pipeline opponents were primarily motivated by the level of greenhouse-gas pollution that would be created by all the dirty tar-sand oil that would have been extracted from western Canada and then transported through the new pipeline. But a secondary reason for opposing the Keystone XL was that pipelines — even newer ones — are prone to the kind of leak that just occurred in South Dakota.

And yet, a decade into the fracking-created oil-and-gas boom in North America, Big Oil is eager to criss-cross much of the United States with new pipelines, often so that oil from the Canadian tar sands or North Dakota or natural gas from Pennsylvania can be transported to more lucrative markets overseas. But the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has slashed its spending on pipeline inspections, which has made the risk of corrosion, leaks and undetected spills even worse.

Had the Keystone XL pipeline been built, and a large spill occurred over the Ogallala Aquifer, drinking water supplies for much of the Central Planes could have been polluted. Increasingly, rank-and-file citizens are working in their own communities to fight proposed new pipelines like the Keystone. That’s because the people understand that these pipelines are unsafe at any speed.

Read more about the South Dakota pipeline spill from ThinkProgress:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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