The Keystone pipeline, which traverses 2,600 miles from western Canada through the central US, leaked an estimated 14,000 barrels of oil, more than half a million gallons, into a creek in Washington county, Kansas, on 7 December. The incident was the largest onshore oil spill since at least 2013, the Keystone pipeline’s third major spill in the last five years, and the largest since it began operating in 2010.
It is also the case that previous estimates from earlier spills on the pipeline have turned out to be much larger than the initial estimates.
Four dead mammals and 71 dead fish were recovered from the latest spill site, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is involved in cleanup efforts with the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), state and local agencies, the pipeline owner and operator TC Energy and the company’s contractors. About 5,500 barrels of oil and water and 5,000 cubic yards of oil-contaminated soil have been recovered in initial cleanup efforts.
Most of the undamaged parts of the pipeline resumed operations last week, as cleanup efforts and an investigation into the cause of the spill continues. On Tuesday it was reported that TC Energy had submitted its plan to regulators for fully restarting it.
“That’s our livelihood out here,” Bill Pannbacker, a farmer whose land was affected by the spill, told CBS News. “Probably an acre, an acre-and-a-half of grasses was totally covered with oil. But that’s on a slope so it would run down, and that’s when it ran down into the creek.”
The spill was the largest onshore oil spill since at least 2013 and the largest spill in the Keystone pipeline system since it began operating in 2010.
“Waterways and land should not be put at risk so Canada and big oil can get their product to market,” said Jane Kleeb, founder and president of the Nebraska non-profit Bold Alliance, which helps communities fight fossil fuel projects. Kleeb is also the chair of the Nebraska Democratic party. “It’s a tremendous burden that pipeline companies put on landowners. They not only take their land through eminent domain for the pipeline company’s private gain, they also take an [access] easement forever.”
Kleeb argued these spills demonstrate how unfair the relationship between pipeline corporations and landowners is. She also pointed to how the Keystone pipeline was labeled the “safest pipeline ever built” during the push for approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The latter was a proposed extension to the Keystone pipeline that was eventually scrapped: its permits were initially revoked by the Obama administration, reinstated by the Trump administration and then canceled by the Biden administration.
“This spill in Kansas is going to take years to clean up. TC Energy currently is pretending that this is going to be a two-week cleanup job and everything’s going to be fine,” added Kleeb. “That topsoil that has now been destroyed on that farmer’s property is gone forever. If you’re in the agriculture industry, you know how precious topsoil is, and how much farmers and ranchers do to protect that topsoil. That’s gone, it’s never coming back, that land will never be the same.”
The crude tar sands oil transported by the Keystone pipeline differs from conventional oil. It consists of a heavy oil called bitumen that is cut with a lighter gas called a diluent to facilitate transportation through pipes.
“Oil spills pose both short and long-term risks to ecological communities,” said Dr Diane Orihel, an assistant professor in aquatic ecotoxicology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “In the days following a spill, oil exposure can cause acute toxicity in wildlife from oil ingestion, inhalation, smothering, drowning or hypothermia. However, scientists now know that the ecological impacts of oil spills can be far more wide-reaching and persist for decades after the spill.”
Dr Orihel conducted a study on bitumen’s impact on a freshwater lake. She observed that it sinks below the water surface and accumulates on the sediment surface in a matter of hours or days.
She also found the diluted bitumen spill resulted in a strong decline in the abundance of insects emerging from the lake. Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the main contaminants of concern in bitumen – called polycyclic aromatic compounds – dissolved into the water column of the lake.
“This propensity for bitumen to sink in freshwater ecosystems also makes oil cleanup much more challenging,” added Dr Orihel.
Incidents like Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have shown that oil spills can have large-scale, long-term effects. “Some wildlife populations may take years to recover from the deaths initially caused by the oil spills, but also certain components of oil are persistent and remain in the ecosystem, continuing to be taken up and causing chronic health effects on wildlife,” she says.
Yet, other major spills, like the one linked to the Hebei Spirit, have offered a lesson. “They have taught us that rapid and extensive cleanup of oil spills can help ecosystems to recover from the disturbance and limit the long-term impacts,” Dr Orihel added.
About 22 oil spills have occurred on the Keystone pipeline in the past 12 years, with two other large incidents. TC Energy has only paid $300,000 in fines for previous spills on the Keystone pipeline, even if the spills caused more than $111m in property damage.
“It is a lemon,” said Paul Blackburn, an attorney who specializes in pipeline law with the Bold Alliance. “It’s leaked a remarkable number of times and while there may be certain kinds of specific causes for each leak, the fact that it leaks so often suggests that there may be some underlying systemic reasons on what’s going wrong.”
A 2010 report from an environmental law center identified a pattern of production and use of substandard steel in new pipelines amid a pipeline construction boombetween 2007 and 2009. A manufacturer linked to the Keystone pipeline was included.
After construction, the Keystone pipeline received numerous warnings from federal regulators about the lack of corrosion protection and deficiencies in corrosion control. The problems took years to be fixed. A recent US Government Accountability Office (GOA) report noted the Keystone pipeline’s safety record has been deteriorating and identified “construction issues”, resulting in large spills on the Keystone pipeline in 2017 and 2019.
Blackburn argued the possibility of fines levied on pipeline corporations are included in the cost of doing business for these multibillion-dollar corporations, which often pass the costs on to customers if they are not already covered by insurance. He noted regulators can force pipeline corporations to conduct more frequent in-line inspections, such as imaging tools that can perform ultrasounds on pipelines to identify possible points of failure and remedy them before a spill occurs.
“All pipelines leak and depending on where they leak, it can be catastrophic, and it certainly is catastrophic for the people who live there whose land is impacted,” added Blackburn. “There are much better tools to prevent these kinds of leaks and PHMSA should require that they be used more often.”
TC Energy claims 6,973 barrels of oil have been recovered from the creek as of 17 December. “The affected segment of the Keystone Pipeline System remains safely isolated as investigation, recovery, repair and remediation continue to advance,” TC Energy said in a statement. “This segment will not be restarted until it is safe to do so and when we have regulatory approval from PHMSA.”