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.
The Rainbow system, owned by Calgary-based Plains Midstream Canada, a subsidiary of Houston, Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline (PAA), was built in 1965 and runs 480 miles from a pipeline in northwestern Alberta to the provincial capital of Edmonton, where oil is processed for U.S. and Canadian markets. PAA is one of the largest oil and gas transportation and storage firms in North America.
The company has said the cause was human error. It claims that soil surrounding a section of the pipe wasn't properly compacted after it was excavated during a 2010 maintenance check, causing stress on the line. As of May 10, 36 percent of the oil has been recovered.
The provincial government and PAA were accused of keeping the spill under wraps for days following the breach. In 2006, the same line ruptured from corrosion and cracking, spilling about 180 barrels.
Tar Sands Blunder
Friends of the Earth quickly pointed to the Alberta spill to puncture TransCanada's safety claims by calling the incident a "a major tar sands oil pipeline spill" that "adds to doubts" about Keystone XL.
But for now, the Rainbow only transports light sweet crude, not bitumen — though PAA, which purchased the pipeline in 2008 from Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, has made it clear on its website that it has oil sands ambitions. "This [Rainbow] system ... is favorably positioned relative to long-lived reserves in certain areas of the Canadian oil-sand deposits," it says.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, an oil sands expert with NRDC, told SolveClimate News that initial confusion about what was spilling from the Rainbow pipeline in late April isn't surprising. That's because either conventional oil or diluted bitumen could have been flowing at that particular pipeline location in Alberta.
While energy companies know what these pipelines are carrying at all times, they need to make sure that the public, emergency responders and local communities have that same information, Casey-Lefkowitz continued.
"The point is that until that's publicly announced, you don't know what you're dealing with," she said. "So the big message a lot of us are sending is that we need to know immediately what is in those pipelines so if a spill occurs, people can respond properly. During a spill, diluted bitumen acts much differently from conventional oil."
It's imperative, she emphasized, that the United States and Canada not compromise on pipeline safety. Construction and maintenance standards are of the utmost importance, she added, because diluted bitumen and other heavier types of crude oil, which cause more wear and tear on pipelines, are becoming more common.
"When we look at the Keystone XL pipeline, I don't think safety is something you want to leave in the hands of any company," she concluded, adding that environmental organizations are going to continue to push for TransCanada to answer to the highest standards. "It's our responsibility as a government to hold those companies responsible."
Howard of TransCanada acknowledged that "incidents like the leak in northern Alberta do cause the public to raise questions" but said Keystone XL is a very different animal.
He noted that the proposed pipeline would have 16,000 data sensors in place to monitor oil flow and pressure in the new line. The company also has plans to add about 30 percent more shutdown valves in sensitive areas and waterway crossings.
Where Do Things Stand?
Keystone XL, the final phase of the $12 billion, 3,800-mile Keystone pipeline system, would carry Canadian crude from Alberta's oil sands operations to Gulf Coast refineries, crisscrossing six U.S. states and the Ogallala Aquifer, the country's largest underground source for drinking water and crop irrigation.
It would have the capacity to pump up to 900,000 barrels a day. In 2009, the U.S. imported roughly 950,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude from the Alberta oil patch.
Because the line crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department is charged with granting a thumbs up or down on the 1,375-mile U.S. proposed pathway of the pipeline.
Last month, the agency released a revised 320-page draft supplemental environmental impact statement. It was roundly criticized by conservationists for not considering alternate pipeline routes and fully addressing safety and spill-response planning, and for rejecting their pleas to extend the public comment period from 45 to 120 days and to hold public hearings in states along the route.
The redone analysis was a response to U.S. EPA, which gave the State Department's first draft environmental impact statement its lowest possible ranking last summer, labeling the document "inadequate" and creating an inter-agency tussle that has delayed action.
The pipeline permit became a focus of attention in Washington after the BP Gulf catastrophe heightened concern over environmental security. The Enbridge oil sands spill in Michigan, which poured about 20,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River system, has also fueled unease over the proposed pipeline.
Advocates to Hold Own Hearings
The State Department's 45-day comment period will officially begin April 22 and wrap up June 6, after which the agency will roll out a final environmental impact statement. There will then be a 90-day review with the Department of Energy, the EPA and other agencies to decide if the project is in the country's national interest.
A final decision is expected by year's end.
In the meantime, frustrated advocates announced this week they would hold their own town hall meetings on Thursday in four of the states on Keystone XL's route — South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas — to air concerns about TransCanada's North Dakota accident.
The testimony will be recorded and sent to Secretary Clinton, said David Daniel, an East Texas landowner. "If Sec. Clinton won't come to us, we'll take our concerns to her."