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Keystone Pipeline Leaks Again, Suffering 625-Year Spill in 13th Year of Operation

In 2007, Transcanada told the Public Utilities Commission that the Keystone pipeline it planned to build through eastern South Dakota on its way from Alberta to depots in Illinois and Oklahoma would average 1.5 leaks every 10 years and spills of 10,000 barrels just once every six centuries:

Of the postulated maximum of 1.5 spills along the Keystone Pipeline system during a 10-year period, the project-specific spill and volume study’s findings suggest that approximately 0.3 spills would be 50 barrels1 or less; 0.5 spills would consist of between 50 and 1,000 barrels; 0.5 spills would consist of between 1,000 and 10,000 barrels; and 0.2 spills would contain more than 10,000 barrels (Appendix A).

…The most extensive database of pipeline spills less than 50 barrels is maintained by the State of California (CSFM 1993). Based on these historical data, the estimated occurrence intervals for a spill of 50 barrels or less occurring anywhere along the entire pipeline system is once every 9 years, a spill between 50 and 1,000 barrels might occur once in 38 years; a spill of 1,000 and 10,000 barrels might occur once in 89 years; and a spill containing more than 10,000 barrels might occur once in 625 years. Applying these statistics to a 1-mile section, the chances of a large spill (greater than 10,000 barrels) would be less than once every 857,000 years per mile [ENSR Corporation, “Pipeline Risk Assessment and Environmental Consequence Analysis,” Document No. 10623-004, March 2007].

In just its 13th year of operation, the Keystone pipeline on Wednesday spewed 14,000 barrels of oil into a creek in Washington County, Kansas:

Canada-based TC Energy said it shut down its Keystone system Wednesday night following a drop in pipeline pressure. It said oil spilled into a creek in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City.

The company on Thursday estimated the spill’s size at about 14,000 barrels and said the affected pipeline segment had been “isolated” and the oil contained at the site with booms, or barriers. It did not say how the spill occurred.

…The spill was 5 miles (8 kilometers) northeast of Washington, the county seat of about 1,100 residents. Paul Stewart, an area farmer, said part of it was contained on his land using yellow booms and a dam of dirt. The spill occurred in Mill Creek, which flows into the Little Blue River [John Hanna, “Oil Spill in Rural Kansas Creek Shuts Down Keystone Pipeline,” AP, 2022.12.08].

TransCanada, now TC Energy, has some problems with math. When the Keystone pipeline ruptured in Marshall County, South Dakota, in November 2017, the company originally said they spilled 5,000 barrels, then admitted four months later the spill was closer to 9,700 barrels.

Of course, we can’t send reporters in to survey and estimate the damage. As happened with the Keystone pipeline’s previous spills, Transcanada, now TC Energy, has blocked public access to the site and taken over law enforcement:

FRED KNAPP: It’s like a parade of trucks heading into the site of the leak. The site is in a pasture or farm field in the middle of a section about five miles northeast of town. I went out there this morning and was stopped by a policeman who’s down from Beatrice. He was letting some people in…

POLICEMAN ON SCENE: Morning, sir, how are you? Good. How are you? I’m fine. I’m with the US Fish and Wildlife Services. Yeah, you guys have been patient. You see the badges. Alright. Thanks, sir. I have no idea. I’m just supposed to not let people in that’s not supposed to be down there.

KNAPP: Reporters are some of those people that are not apparently supposed to be there.

REMBERT: Okay, so from as close as you were able to get, what did you see?

KNAPP: The parade of trucks: a waste disposal truck, a grader, trucks labeled for industrial services, Washington County Public Works, oilfield services, environmental restoration and Emergency Response Command trailer. And they were all headed for a spot I couldn’t see very well from a half mile away, illuminated by klieg lights.

REMBERT: So a lot of cooks in the kitchen, it sounds like. But who’s running the show?

KNAPP: Well, when I asked the policeman from Beatrice that he referred me to TC Energy’s website for any information. It appears to be TC Energy that’s running the show [Fred Knapp and Elizabeth Rembert, “‘Parade of Trucks’ Surround Area of Keystone Pipeline Leak Near Nebraska-Kansas Border,” Nebraska Public Media, 2022.12.09].

Locals appear unalarmed:

A heavy odor of oil hung in the air as tractor trailers ferried generators, lighting and ground mats to a muddy site on the outskirts of this farming community.

…”We could smell it first thing in the morning; it was bad,” said Washington resident Dana Cecrle, 56. He shrugged off the disruption: “Stuff breaks. Pipelines break, oil trains derail.”

TC Energy did not provide details of the breach or say when a restart on the broken segment could begin. Officials are scheduled on Monday to receive a briefing on the pipeline breach and cleanup, said Washington County’s emergency preparedness coordinator, Randy Hubbard, on Saturday.

…The spill has not threatened the water supply or forced residents to evacuate. Emergency workers installed booms to contain oil that flowed into a creek and that sprayed onto a hillside near a livestock pasture, said Hubbard.

…”Hell, that’s life,” said 70-year-old Carol Hollingsworth of nearby Hollenberg, Kansas, about the latest spill. “We got to have the oil” [Erwin Seba and Nia Williams, “Residents Hold Their Nose as Crews Mop Up Huge U.S. Oil Spill,” Reuters, 2022.12.10].

The affected landowners, who are providing a leak in TC Energy’s press-blockade, express a similar petrofatalism:

Bill and Chris Pannbacker welcome a visitor to their land, driving him him up a steep pasture hill, covered with rich brown carpet of prairie grass. But down below the hill, visible in the distance, sits a big black stain. That’s where the Keystone pipeline ruptured Wednesday night, spreading an estimated 14,000 barrels of oil over an area Bill reckons as at least an acre and a half. Chris, a reporter for the Advocate newspaper in nearby Marysville, says when she first got the news, she reacted analyticaly, as a reporter.

“I was in deadline mode when we got the call. But it got a lot more personal yesterday when we saw the blackness,” she said.

Friday, when she finally stood right next to that blackness, her reaction became visceral.

“It’s just” – she began, sighing deeply, before adding, resignedly, “It is what it is.”

Meanwhile, Bill surveyed the damage, and reflected on recent history. He sold an easement to Transcanada, now TC Energy, to build the pipeline in 2009. He says people have become a lot more aware of climate change since then, but if they want oil, pipelines are still the way to go.

“Pipelines are as safe a way of transporting product like this as there is, even though we had one blow here. Trains derail and trucks have wrecks. It’s just a price we just have to accept, as a society, he said [Fred Knapp, “Couple React to Keystone Oil Spill on Their Land,” Nebraska Public Media, 2022.12.09].

No, it’s not a price we have to accept as a society. In October, OPEC said economic headwinds alone will reduce demand for oil over the next few months by 500,000 barrels a day. The coronavirus pandemic changed our energy consumption habits in ways that reduced global petro demand by 2.5 million barrels a day. Keystone’s capacity is 600,000 barrels a day, and TC Energy is testing the line to see if it can handle 720,000 barrels a day. We could leave Keystone shut down for good and hardly notice. We could speed up our production and deployment of electric vehicles and never import another drop of Canadian tar sands oil.

We don’t have to keep spoiling rural America with industrial predations. We choose to.

We don’t have to accept a shoddily built pipeline suffering its biggest rupture and spill yet in an alarming trend of increasingly large leaks. We choose to.

We don’t have to shrug at promises of safety and reliability that have turned out to be lowball lies. We choose to.

Related Reading: According to the Correction Action Order issued by the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on Thursday, TC Energy was running an in-line inspection tool through the Keystone pipeline just downstream of the Washington leak site when the rupture happened.


  1. larry kurtz 2022-12-11 08:40

    This time humanity is the asteroid.

    Because of the defeat of KXL Turner Enterprises, Inc. and Turner Ranches announced the launch of the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, Inc. a 501(c)(3) public charity and agricultural research organization in the Nebraska Sandhills that will share a formal agreement, facilities and staff with the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies at South Dakota State University.

  2. Donald Pay 2022-12-11 09:13

    …”We could smell it first thing in the morning; it was bad,” said Washington resident Dana Cecrle, 56. He shrugged off the disruption: “Stuff breaks. Pipelines break, oil trains derail.”

    This sums up my opinion, but what I don’t understand is why people’s thinking stops there. It’s like, “My ass is here, you’re foot is there. Here, let me bend over.” No wonder this country is on a downward spiral.

  3. Jake 2022-12-11 09:20

    Cory, your repetition of the words “We Choose To”, “We Choose To” is hitting the nail squarely on the head.!!!

  4. O 2022-12-11 10:47

    Again, this seems the question of who is in service to whom: do “we” need oil, or do oil corporations need oil profits? Even if one must accept the conceit that oil is the necessary evil to fuel the economy (which we need not), the rejection of even basic conservation measures to address the existential crisis of oil shows the full breakdown of basic democratic principals. Yes again, we will not even come together to protect our majority interests against he monied interests of the obscenely wealthy minority.

  5. Donald Pay 2022-12-11 13:49

    O is asking the right questions and coming to the right conclusions. In many respects, it’s our own fault, but even if we come together to address problems, the deck is stacked against us.

    I supposedly own mineral property in North Dakota. I don’t want oil produced from my property, especially by fracking. My ownership of the mineral property makes no difference. I am forced to sell it to Hess and XTO through “forced pooling.” The oil companies take my oil and charge me a penalty. Then they pay me whatever they want for the oil they stole. Similar laws affect property owners in Harding County, SD.

  6. P. Aitch 2022-12-11 14:42

    But electric cars aren’t manly or tough. The sound of a set of Hooker Headers, wide open, is why we need the oil. It’s a manly sound that rumbles in your “below” region. Electric cars are for pussies! #satire

  7. John 2022-12-11 16:29

    2 points. This is the 23d and largest rupture of the Keystone pipeline in its existence since 2010. That’s 2 spills per year. Was Keystone designed and engineered by Homer Simpson? Built by Homer Simpson? Welded by Homer Simpson? Used materials built by Homer Simpson? Used pipeline controllers provided by Homer Simpson? Clearly the bond for pipelines is inappropriately low.

    Electric cars. Tony Seba was right. The great transformation is happening in transportation. A ‘modern’ 64 year old plant in Illinois received notice its being shut down. One cannot ‘just’ convert and internal combustion vehicle plant to make EVs. The local union is screaming. This is a classic case of adopt, migrate, or die. Expect local political hacks to try to stop progress using bad economic incentives. Expect many more ICE plants to shutter. Expect billions of dollars of losses and write offs as the EV transformation goes exponential.

  8. O 2022-12-11 16:59

    John, maybe even the concept of a society based around the concept of car ownership needs to be reexamined? Cars kill communities and push mega-stores, compounding the evils found in that arena (not the least of which is again, the concentration of wealth).

  9. Mark Anderson 2022-12-11 17:23

    According to the reasoning of those two ladies, there won’t be a leak for 612 years for sure. You know that nuclear waste article you had? Couldn’t be a better county, hell that’s life.

  10. John 2022-12-11 21:43

    O, Tony Seba makes that exact point. US cities development was all about cars. Cities can easily re-design roads and especially parking lots for better uses. Much earlier we designed towns around the railroad terminal – then that became an urban nuisance so we built overpasses, bypasses, etc. Cory’s Aberdeen is a classic case study for a rural community. Our transportation model is again shifting to transportation as a service. Since a car/truck spends 98% of its “life” sitting unused it makes economic sense to pay for transportation as a service vs owning, insuring, maintaining a vehicle to “sit”. Change will arrive later here in flyover country. One issue is also how to repurpose the car dealerships since as the manufactures move to the direct sales model. That’s a bunch of real estate in small cities. (And dealerships also are significant supporters of local non-profits and school fund raisers. The distant manufactures will not step into that void.) It’s not dire; merely a transformation.

  11. Jake 2022-12-12 08:49

    Methinks we could live longer WITHOUT a pipeline of oil than we could or will without water suitable to drink….

  12. larry kurtz 2022-12-12 11:17

    Pipelines are vulnerable to attack so Russia loves it when our supply chain fails and drives their petrostate.

  13. runs_with_fire 2022-12-12 11:18

    WATER is LIFE. Protect.

  14. e platypus onion 2022-12-14 18:03

    An exemption granted to KX1 in 2017 allowed the pipeline to operate under expanded pressure for crude oil.

    But, I thought dilbit had to be watered down with industry secret chemicals and shipped under high pressure just to get the crud to flow. I’m guessing these officials are deliberately dumbed down about what the pipeline carried and how it was piped.

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