With reporting by Elizabeth McGowan
With the oil industry under the national spotlight, environmental advocates are pointing to a pair of recent oil spills to bolster their campaign against a much-disputed Alberta-to-Texas tar sands pipeline that could win U.S. approval by the end of the year.
The organizations say this month's oil accidents in North Dakota and Alberta are more evidence that TransCanada's 1,702-mile, $7 billion Keystone XL line should be put on hold until safety issues are resolved through government oversight.
Helping their cause is the heightened scrutiny of the oil industry due to rising gas prices, Middle East unrest and the debate over domestic energy production. Small oil spills that don't typically garner much attention are currently grabbing global headlines.
For Calgary-based TransCanada, which is trying to gain the advantage in the high-stakes public relations battle for Keystone XL, the extra scrutiny comes at an unfortunate time.
Last Saturday, a valve broke at a pumping station in southern North Dakota along the first leg of its Keystone pipeline system. The breach released about 500 barrels of Canadian heavy crude inside the facility and set off a geyser of oil that reached above the treetops in a nearby field. It was only ten months ago that the pipeline began transporting bitumen from Alberta's oil sands mines to refineries in Patoka, Illinois.
TransCanada says it shut down the line nine minutes after a drop in pressure was detected, and before local landowner Bob Banderet alerted emergency operators about the spouting crude. It was the 11th accident reported at a station on the line since May 21, 2010. The others gushed less than a barrel each. The pipeline will resume pumping on Saturday.
"They said this couldn't happen," Banderet told a local news outlet, referring to conversations he previously had with TransCanada officials. "It's a once in a thousand year occurrence, and here it is right in front of you."
Once in Seven Years?
According to TransCanada's official risk assessments, reported by Argus Leader, a leak of 50 barrels or more on the Keystone system is predicted to occur once every seven years, but the pipeline's 24 above-ground pumping stations were not part of the risk analyses.
Some green groups immediately latched onto the opportunity to criticize Keystone XL.
"TransCanada's first tar sands oil pipeline into the U.S. has sustained spill after spill," said Alex Moore, dirty fuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "The Obama administration must investigate this serious pipeline spill and keep the current public comment period on the Keystone XL proposal open until that investigation is complete."
Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Defense Resources Council, said the spill portends "worse things to come."
"The Keystone pipeline is not going to get any stronger or safer than it is now, as many of the risks associated with hot, high pressure diluted bitumen pipelines — including internal corrosion, abrasion and stress corrosion cracking — only weaken pipelines over time," he wrote on his blog.
A recent controversial study by NRDC and other advocacy groups said that because oil sands pipes carry a highly corrosive and acidic mix of diluted bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate, they raise the risk of spills and damage to waterways and communities.
The authors said that internal corrosion has caused more than 16 times as many spills in the Alberta pipeline system as the U.S. system because of bitumen.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in an e-mail to SolveClimate News that "while there have been incidents" on Keystone "none relate to the pipeline itself."
"There is no issue with the integrity or the operation of Keystone," he said.
Alberta's Worst Spill Since 1975
Howard has also found himself defending Keystone XL in the face of what he calls an "unrelated [oil] incident" in his own country.
On April 29, the province of Alberta suffered its worst spill in 36 years when a pipeline broke in a remote area of boreal forest east of the Peace River, some 7.5 miles from the community of Little Buffalo in Lubicon Cree First Nation traditional territory. It released 28,000 barrels along the pipeline's 30-meter right-of-way and in pools of stagnant water.