While it may go drastically underreported to the American public, pipelines leak all the time. The most recent one to make major headlines was the Keystone pipeline, which ruptured in the last week of Oct., 2019, causing over 383,000 gallons of oil to contaminate surrounding wetlands.
"It has never been 'if' a pipeline breaks but rather 'when,'” Joye Braun, a community organizer with Indigenous Environmental Network, explained to CNN at the time of the leak.
TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Corporation), owner of the Keystone Pipeline, shut off the pipeline on Oct. 29 after a detection system found it had begun to leak. According to TC Energy, the Keystone Pipeline was reinstated to service on Nov. 10 upon approval from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The initial reports by TC Energy estimated that the leak impacted over 22,500 square feet of wetlands.
By mid-November, state regulators raised the reported acreage of contaminated land to about 209,100 square feet, nearly 10 times what was originally reported to the public. The contaminated soil and water were allegedly all removed from the site by TC Energy and taken to a landfill in Sawyer, North Dakota.
This oil spill is yet another grave reminder of the threat from the proposed $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline (KXL), which will transport crude oil from some of the world’s dirtiest oil fields located in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to terminals along the Gulf Coast for sale on the international market.
Since it was first proposed, the plan for KXL has received pushback across the country due to the threat of leaks that could have irreversible effects on communities and ecosystems. Over the years, TC Energy has continuously tried to get the Keystone XL pipeline approved through layers of different administrations, litigation, and public dispute.
The pipeline was originally drawn up in July of 2008, but only began to pick up public attention while under consideration by the Obama administration. In 2015, that administration turned down the proposal amid intense public pressure, citing conflict with climate policies. Justifiably, the administration called the pipeline a “threat to national security.”
However, the Trump administration rescinded both of these attempts at long-term policy change. In Jan. 2017, Trump issued an executive order speeding up KXL’s approval process from the U.S. State Department. By March 2017, the pipeline company was given the official green light to start construction.
Amid all of this, TC Energy’s existing Keystone I pipeline leaked more than 400,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota in November, 2017 — its largest spill to date. These spills are not at all uncommon. Over the past 10 years, some of the larger spills have caused contamination of water, air, wildlife, and soil that impact entire communities. Such spills are a point of concern for many, especially the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and Belknap Indian Community of Montana, both of which sued the Trump administration under the claim that the Department of State’s Environmental Impact Statements had failed to consider impacts to the tribes. Because the pipeline is slated to run through the tribes’ ancestral, historical, and sacred lands, District Judge Brian Morris of Montana ruled to re-examine potential pollution and to uphold the treaties.
Most recently, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe won a court order on Dec. 20 2019, marking a major success in the fight against KXL. The federal court rejected both the United States federal government’s and TC Energy's efforts to dismiss the tribes’ case. Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth commented on the outcome, saying, “The court’s decision means that all of the tribes’ claims on the current permits will proceed … this is a complete win for the tribes on the motions to dismiss. We look forward to holding the Trump administration and TC Energy accountable to the tribes and the applicable laws that must be followed.”
While this is a step in the right direction, it has proven to be extremely challenging to combat the corporations building the pipelines and those supporting them.
Public concerns over dangerous pipeline leaks are far from ungrounded, as more than 1,650 individual leaks have occurred in the U.S. since 2010, spilling more than 11.5 million gallons of oil. There is also growing mistrust toward the corporations responsible for cleaning up these spills. In July of 2010, a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy (Line 6B) began to leak over one million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River and surrounding land. Originally, Enbridge estimated that the spill was around 819,000 gallons but was later forced to significantly increase that estimate. The spill occurred because of a large crack in the pipeline and alleged communication failures within and between Enbridge Energy management teams. Because of the severity of the spill, cleanup took approximately five years, but the pipeline has since been returned to service.
During the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) protests in early December of 2016, a leak in True Cos’s Belle Fourche pipeline released over 176,000 gallons of oil into a North Dakota creek. This occurred just 150 miles from the Standing Rock protests, validating their legitimacy. The leak was discovered by a local landowner who observed oil on the surface after the pipeline’s electronic leak detection system failed to detect the leak below ground. Such a failure could have caused even more harm if it had gone unnoticed for a longer period of time.
New or old, pipelines consistently leak, and the companies that operate pipelines have proven themselves to be more concerned with protecting their public image than with truthfully reporting the extent of the damages they cause. The ramifications are significant for the communities impacted, and cleanup can take years. Sunoco, owned and operated by Transfer Energy Operating, has been criticized extensively for these exact reasons. Its pipelines range in age from decades-old to brand new, yet consistently contribute to one of the worst safety records of any pipeline operator, according to PHMSA. Sunoco has had 167 reported crude oil spills since 2010, and because of its close association with Energy Transfer Operating, owner of the Dakota Access pipeline, many fear that the company’s atrocious safety history may be carried on by DAPL, especially as talk of expanding oil capacity continues.
Now, the North Dakota Public Service Commission (NDPSC) has approved a massive expansion that would double the amount of crude oil DAPL carries — from 500 thousand barrels to 1.1 million barrels per day at much higher pressure and speed. The calls for expansion come despite the legitimate safety concerns the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had already expressed about the original 500,000-barrel-per-day capacity — concerns already justified since DAPL has leaked 10 times in the last three years alone. A 2015 Sunoco Pipeline Draft Facility Response Plan illustrates clearly that Sunoco understands that increasing the maximum flow rate would double the size of a potential oil spill, yet neither Sunoco nor Energy Transfer Operating have taken this fact into account in their environmental impact analyses, nor have they disclosed high-risk areas for impact in the event of an oil spill.
In 2016, the United States averaged one oil spill every other day. Now more than ever, it is important to know where pipelines exist, and it’s equally critical to stay vigilant for discussions of expansion. Our overall goal should be to reduce emissions and address pipeline cases promptly to avoid a full-scale climate meltdown. Simply put: we cannot afford more pipelines in our climate budget. A much more critical eye must be given to the trillion-dollar crude oil industry because many haven’t the slightest idea how it operates in the U.S. Especially today, as the climate crisis becomes increasingly visible, holding pipeline corporations and governments accountable is essential.