Keystone Pipeline spills 383,000 gallons of crude oil in North Dakota wetland, its fourth major spill in nine years

The Keystone Pipeline spilled 383,000 gallons of a tar sands crude oil (9,119 barrels) on Oct 29 into wetlands near Edinburg, North Dakota, according to multiple news reports.

The spill’s cause remains unknown, but one possible culprit is North Dakota’s record rains. Water-saturated soils become more fluid and can cause ground slumping; that puts stress underground pipelines. A federal government advisory has cited heavy rains and flooding as causes for other pipeline breaks. Such problems only will get worse as climate change brings more severe storms.

This should raise a red flag for Minnesota policymakers regarding the proposed Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. It would run 340 miles across northern Minnesota through our state’s cleanest waters, crossing more than 200 water bodies and 75 miles of wetlands.

Map of Keystone and Keystone XL pipelines. (From Wikipedia.)

The North Dakota spill is bolstering arguments to stop construction of the proposed $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to a terminal in Nebraska. (See map.)

Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, was quoted in an opinion piece in Indian Country Today: “This is what pipelines do: They spill,”[he said]. “This latest Keystone leak demonstrates why we stood against Dakota Access in the first place, why we’re doing so again now, and why we’re prepared to fight Keystone XL every step of the way.”

Calgary-based TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) put the Keystone pipeline into operation less than a decade ago. At the time, company risk assessments said a spill of more than 50 barrels would occur “not more than once every seven to 11 years” across the United States,” according to a Nov. 6 Reuters story.

The Edinburg incident marks the fourth spill in nine years. A 2017 spill released some 9,700 barrels of tar sands crude oil in a South Dakota wetland, the Reuters story said. Spills of around 400 barrels each occurred in South Dakota (2016) and North Dakota (2011).

“The incidents underscore that the existing Keystone system has leaked substantially more oil, and more often, in the United States than indicated in risk assessments the company provided to regulators before it was built,” it said.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration ordered TC Energy to close down the pipeline section near Edinburg until repairs were made, according to a Nov. 6 article in InForum. The Administration’s order said: “continued operation of the affected pipeline segment would be ‘hazardous to life, property and the environment without immediate corrective actions.’” At the time of the InForum story, TC Energy had about “200 round-the-clock personnel focused on clean-up and remediation activities.”

Note that tar sands crude oil spills are very difficult to clean up. Tar sands crude doesn’t float on water. It’s thick and tar-like. Producers mix volatile chemicals into the tar sands crude to dilute it, so it can flow through pipelines. When these volatile chemicals evaporate during a spill, the tar sands gets heavy and sink in water.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said the state is investigating if North Dakota’s record rainfalls were a spill factor, according to a Nov. 1 KVRR report: “Potentially it could have had conditions related to ground slumping something that could have created stress that would have been out of the norm so we are going to be taking a look at that,” Burgum said.

This is a not a new concern. As this blog reported earlier this year, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning in the May 2 Federal Register about pipeline spill risks from geological hazards and flooding. Examples included the following:

  • On October 21, 2016, a pipeline release of over 1,238 barrels of gasoline spilled into the Loyalsock Creek in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. The release was caused by extreme localized flooding and soil erosion.
  • On December 5, 2016, approximately 12,615 barrels of crude oil was released into Ash Coulee Creek in Billings County, North Dakota. The metallurgical and root cause failure analysis indicated the failure was caused by compressive and bending forces due to a landslide impacting the pipeline. The landslide was the result of excessive moisture within the hillside creating unstable soil conditions.
  • On January 9, 2018, a failure occurred on a 22-inch transmission pipeline in Montecito California. The incident resulted in a fire and explosion and the release of an estimated 12,000 [thousand cubic feet] of natural gas … It is believed that heavy rains and localized flooding contributed to the incident.

In 2017, the California Energy Commission’s Climate Change Center issued a White Paper titled: ASSESSMENT OF CALIFORNIA’S NATURAL GAS PIPELINE VULNERABILITY TO CLIMATE CHANGE. The abstract begins:

One of California’s greatest concerns related to global and regional climate change is the vulnerability of infrastructure to the effects of extreme storm events and long-term sea level rise. California’s natural gas transmission system, much of which is located along the state’s waterways, is particularly vulnerable to damage caused by inundation (flooding).

So we are in a viscous circle: The more pipelines we build, the worse climate damage becomes, and the larger the threat to pipeline infrastructure.

TC Energy reopened the section of pipeline that failed on Sunday, thought at a reduced flow rate, the Lincoln Star Journal reported today. Investigators still had not identified a cause.

Click on the links above for more details.

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