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A Leak in the Keystone Pipeline

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 19, 2017

Wouldn’t you know it . . . the Keystone Pipeline has leaked.

Not a small leak, mind you. Crews are working to clean up a pipeline leak that has spilled at least 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

I hear the faint cries of someone shouting, “Told ya so even as we look ahead to Monday when Nebraska considers another pipeline project by TransCanada Corp., owner of the Keystone pipeline. In fact, the likelihood of big oil leaks along the thousands of miles of pipeline might leak was a major argument against approval.

But the politics of last November 8 overruled the environmental safety concerns, and the long delayed pipeline project moved ahead. It was also argued that the project would generate thousands of new jobs; to date the bulk of jobs created have been shorter-term construction jobs, but now there are tens of permanent jobs being advertised.

The leak was located in an agricultural area in Marshall County. More than 5,000 barrels leaked in 15 minutes, according to TransCanada, when a drop in pressure was noticed. A barrel is 42 gallons, which works out to 210,000 gallons, none of which has been reported as having entered any waterways or water systems.

The cleanup will take months, up to a year, said local officials. Canadian heavy crude prices and TransCanada Corp shares slid the day after the 5,000-barrel spill, tied for this year’s largest pipeline leak in the United States. No date was set for reopening Keystone, TransCanada said.

Clearly, the spill gave strength to environmental groups and other U.S. opponents of another pipeline the company has proposed, the long-delayed Keystone XL.

Keystone carries 590,000 barrels per day of crude from Alberta’s oil sands to markets in the United States. The state of Nebraska is set to decide on Monday whether to approve Keystone XL.

TransCanada is looking for a cause, adding that the pipeline will remain closed it gets approval to restart from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“It’s not a tiny spill by any means,” said Kim McIntosh, environmental scientist manager at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The last Keystone pipeline spill recorded was about 400 barrels of oil in Hutchinson County, South Dakota, in April ,2016. “The 2016 release took around 10 months to clean up; this will take longer,” McIntosh told Reuters. “I can’t predict whether it will take 20 months or 12 months.”

In Nebraska, Keystone XL opponents seized on the spill as an example of its environmental risks.

“Pipelines are basically plumbing; and plumbing leaks. It comes as no surprise,” said Tom Genung, who lives near the proposed Keystone XL route in Holt County, Nebraska.

From news reports, the Nebraska Public Service Commission, or PSC, is scheduled to announce a decision on Monday on Keystone XL. Its decision focuses narrowly on whether the pipeline is in the public interest, not environmental issues, which it is not allowed to consider.

Art Tanderup’s family farm in Neligh, Nebraska, lies in the path of the 830,000 bpd Keystone XL project. He told Reuters that he hoped the spill will sway any Nebraska commissioners who may be on the fence about a permit. “I hope it sends a message to those five people making that decision on Monday,” said Tanderup. He said the proposed XL pipeline would be built over huge amounts of sandy soil atop the Ogallala aquifer, putting farmers and ranchers at risk of water contamination if a spill occurs.

”We would have so much crud and chemicals in the Ogallala aquifer that we could n ever clean up,” he said.

The Keystone Pipeline and the XL Pipeline would make it easier to bring oil produced in Alberta, Canada and North Dakota to the global market. In addition, there are multiple opportunities for other pipelines servicing shale fields in, for example, Ohio and Pennsylvania to link to Keystone XL.

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