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Now That Keystone XL Could Go Forward, Let's Talk About That Oil Spill a Bit More

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On Monday, the Keystone XL Pipeline took one big leap toward becoming a reality—less than a week after developer TransCanada discovered a massive leak in its nearby Keystone Pipeline, which spewed at least 210,000 gallons of crude oil onto South Dakota agricultural lands.

While TransCanada is behind both pipelines (and they bear similar names), they are separate (though related) projects. Keystone Pipeline’s been around since 2010, and TransCanada has yet to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline.


But that may soon change. The Nebraska Public Service Commission approved a route for the proposed 1,179-mile-long crude oil pipeline in a 3-2 vote that broke along gender lines, as HuffPost reporter Alexander Kaufman pointed out on Twitter:


The route the commission went with is not exactly what TransCanada was hoping for, though. Instead, it approved an alternative route, called the Alternative Mainline Route, in the commission’s certification notice. This path follows more closely along the Keystone Pipeline. It runs only five miles longer than the preferred route while avoiding nearly 85 miles of the endangered whooping crane’s migratory patterns, according to the commission.

Per the commissioners’ decision:

Other benefits of the Alternative Mainline Route include, but are not limited to, one fewer river crossing, fewer wells within 500 feet of the pipeline, fewer acres of pivot irrigated cropland crossed, fewer crossing of intermittent and perennial streams and rivers, fewer miles of pipeline placed in areas with shal-1ow groundwater, and fewer state highways and natural gas facilities to be crossed.

Here’s a map of the routes to give you a better idea:


TransCanada is going to review the state’s decision, according to an online statement. The company must analyze how this would impact the project’s estimated cost and schedule, said TransCanada President and CEO Russ Girling, in the release. The crude oil pipeline, which would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Alberta tar sands in Canada into the United States, is already projected to cost the developer $8 billion.

Meanwhile, TransCanada is dealing with the fallout of the November 16 oil spill. On Monday, a 150-person crew remained on site assessing the environmental damage. Brian Walsh with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources told Earther that soil contamination has been confirmed. The area is typically used as grazing grasslands though cattle weren’t present during the incident. Row crops aren’t far from the site, either. They usually consist of soy and corn crop, according to Walsh.


“The site does not sit over an aquifer, but there is some shallow groundwater present, so it’s possible there will be some local groundwater contamination,” Walsh said.

The state and TransCanada are still assessing the impacts to determine how to best remediate the situation. So far, Walsh said he believes the spill impacted two private landowners but said TransCanada would know best. The company did not respond to multiple attempts by Earther to clarify this and other details, instead redirecting us to its website.


Potential harm to wildlife, including deer, pheasants, and geese, is a serious concern and TransCanada has installed noisemaker machines to keep animals away. Since work is ongoing, the 24/7 light “deters wildlife from being in the area, as well,” Walsh said. In a worst-case scenario where animals do end up on site, they might come in contact with oil-contaminated grass and soil. A wildlife services team specializing in dealing with impacted animals is on site as a precaution.

Given all the state does know, Walsh says cleanup could take a month or maybe eight weeks; it’s hard to predict. “From our agency’s point of view, it takes as long as it takes to meet the requirements,” Walsh said.


But are pipeline developers doing all they can do to ensure safety? After all, these infrastructure projects carry immense risk no matter how hard one tries to build and manage them safely. Gas pipelines have killed before, and oil pipelines have degraded ecosystems.


These aren’t what-if scenarios, they are real-life possibilities, according to USC engineering professor Najmedin Meshkati, who has been researching pipeline safety for 25 years and providing expertise to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. He told Earther he doesn’t think companies are doing an adequate job when it comes to safety.

“I’m not saying these companies are reckless,” Meshkati said. “They are not reckless, but the level of awareness and importance they give to human issues don’t commensurate with the complexity of the industry and the nature of the hazard they are running.”


When the professor first heard about the Keystone Pipeline spill, he was shocked by its size. After the shock, he realized how lucky TransCanada was: If the spill would have happened in a populated region, near a body of water, or on farmland, this would have been a national disaster, he said.

Then, he began wondering: “What could have caused this?”

TransCanada is still trying to figure that out, too. It hasn’t yet announced a cause.


Meshkati has traveled around the world to visit sites that have seen true devastation at the hand of humans: Fukushima, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Chernobyl Power Plant.

“I have seen what a manmade disaster can do,” he said. “[TransCanada was] very lucky.”


Ultimately, Meshkati believes pipeline companies need to place a bigger emphasis on pipeline safety culture at the workplace. “They need to come to a realization—or, what I call, some soul searching—that, really, what is important for the pipeline operation is the safety culture and human factors,” Meshkati said.

If TransCanada wants Keystone XL to actually hold the title for “safest pipeline ever built,” it needs to do more than claim that, according to Meshkati. Actions speak louder than words, and it’s up to them to learn from this pipeline spill to make sure another of this magnitude doesn’t happen again.