Keystone Oil Spill Highlights Risks Of XL Pipeline

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Following the 210,000 gallon spill from TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in mid-November, citizens and state regulators have questioned the safety of the line and the potential effects of bringing it into their communities. Plans to extend the line further stress the importance of understanding the potential impacts of spills.

On Nov. 20, the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved part of the long-contested extension of the Keystone Pipeline, but not along the route that the oil company desired, InsideClimate News reports. The proposed route includes areas not previously planned for pipeline construction, so negotiation in those areas would likely stall or even kill the project.

Adding fuel to the fire is a recent Reuters report that found that significantly more oil has leaked from the Keystone pipeline than was predicted in risk assessments done before it started operating in 2010.

TransCanada had estimated that leaks of more than 50 barrels across the entire U.S. span of pipeline would occur every seven to 11 years. South Dakota -- where the most recent spill took place -- was predicted to leak no more frequently than once every 41 years.

In six years, the pipeline has had three major leaks of 400 barrels or more. Two of those leaks happened in the past two years in South Dakota. November's leak was the largest yet, leaking a total of 5,000 barrels.

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The spill was chalked up to infrastructural problems with the pipeline from when it was constructed. The damaged section has now been fixed, but critics still aren't certain that the new segment is safer.

"All human-made infrastructure degrades and fails over time," said Commissioner Crystal Rhoades in a dissent, according to InsideClimate News. "No infrastructure ever designed has lasted for eternity, and there is no reason to believe this pipeline will be an exception."

Rhoades also criticized TransCanada for failing to seek input from indigenous tribes whose members live in the area.

Another commissioner, Rod Johnson, noted the gravity of TransCanada's purported safety, writing that Nebraskans are counting on TransCanada's promise to be "the safest pipeline in history."

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The Keystone pipeline currently transports about 600,000 barrels of oil per day. The Keystone XL expansion would increase its output to more than 800,000 barrels, according to InsideClimate News. Reuters reported that TransCanada's spill analysis for the extended pipeline is 2.2 spills per decade, about one-half of which would be three barrels or less. Spills exceeding 1,000 barrels would be expected to happen every century.

If TransCanada's estimates are anything like their old ones, significantly more oil will spill than their assessment suggests. Even tiny spills could spell bad news for the communities and wildlife that inhabit the area.

Because oil doesn't mix with water, when fuel oil comes into contact with rivers, the ocean or water in the ground, it separates into its lighter components and its heavier bitumen, which sinks to the ground and makes it difficult to clean up. The remaining pollution can contaminate drinking water and underwater ecosystems.

The water-resistant nature of oil also makes it difficult to wash off of rocks, beaches and animals, ThoughtCo notes. Birds are particularly sensitive to the effects of oil as it destroys their natural insulation and leaves them vulnerable to freezing or overheating. Science News reports that an Oklahoma State University study found that birds who ingested crude oil spent less time preening, suggesting they are feeling ill.

In the short term, oil spills affect birds' migration and breeding seasons, which can have long-term effects on populations. It also remains in the environment for several years and declines at a slow rate -- in 2007, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found 26,000 gallons of oil from a 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill still stuck in the sand along Alaska's shore. That same spill killed an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 birds.

Oil spills are not considered to cause cancer, but Kearney Hub notes that opponents insist it contains known carcinogens.

With oil prices still low and controversy surrounding the pipeline high, TransCanada may eventually decide it's simply not worth its time.

Sources: InsideClimate News (2), Reuters, ThoughtCo, Science News, Kearney Hub / Featured Image: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service / Embedded Images: Kallol Mustafa/Wikimedia Commons, shannonpatrick17/Flickr

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