Twin oil spills raise questions on US-Canada tar sands pipeline project

Two oil line ruptures in as many weeks may jeopardize a planned Alberta-to-Texas tar-sands pipeline that Calgary-based TransCanada is currently seeking approval for. The 1,702-mile, $12 billion Keystone XL line could get the go-ahead from the US State Department by year’s end. But on May 7, a valve broke at a pumping station near near Cogswell, North Dakota, along the first leg of the Keystone pipeline system. The breach released some 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. Just ten months ago the pipeline began transporting bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands mines to refineries in Patoka, Illinois. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups said that because tar-sands pipelines carry a highly corrosive and acidic mix of diluted bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate, they raise the risk of spills. The study found that internal corrosion has caused more than 16 times as many spills in the Alberta pipeline system than the US system because of bitumen.

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 the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree First Nation. It released 28,000 barrels along the pipeline’s 30-meter right-of-way and in pools of stagnant water. The Rainbow pipeline system—owned by Calgary-based Plains Midstream Canada, a subsidiary of Houston-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 US and Canadian markets. PAA is one of the largest oil and gas transportation firms in North America.

The company said the cause was human error—claiming 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. PAA now says 36% of the oil has been recovered. But the company reported that clean-up work was halted May 11 after a distress call from a worker in the field. Additionally, both the provincial government and PAA were accused of keeping the spill hushed up for days following the rupture. In 2006, there was a breach on the same line due to corrosion, spilling about 180 barrels.

Friends of the Earth called the PAA rupture “a major tar sands oil pipeline spill” that “adds to doubts” about Keystone XL. Critics pointed out that for now, the Rainbow line only transports light sweet crude, not bitumen. However, PAA, which purchased the pipeline in 2008 from Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, makes 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.

NRDC meanwhile notes a recent string of grim warnings of the dangers posed by the Keystone XL plan: “Over the last year we’ve had many recent indications of the risks of tar sands diluted bitumen pipelines—an 840,000 gallon spill in Michigan, a 250,000 gallon spill outside Chicago, a 1.3 million gallon spill in Alberta, as well as our recent report examining the safety of tar sands pipelines.” It calls the North Dakota incident the “eleventh and most significant spill” on the existing portion of the Keystone line since it began operations less than a year ago. (Reuters, Michigan Messenger, May 12; UPI, Globe & Mail, CTV Calgary, Mother Jones, May 11; TexasVox, May 10)

Tar-sands pipelines under construction in the Canadian west have been repeatedly protested by First Nations whose lands are being impacted. Tar-sands processing will receive big tax breaks in the US under legislation passed as part of the corporate “bail-out” after the 2008 financial crash.

See our last post on the politics of oil spills and the struggle in Canada.

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  1. Heartland protests against tar-sands development
    Nebraskans gathered at the capitol rotunda in Lincoln for an unofficial “citizen hearing” to speak against the proposed Keystone oil pipeline on May 12, where scores of residents who live along the proposed route argued that the recent spills indicate the dangers of the project for their homes and lands. Concerns were also raised over the critical waters of the Ogallala Aquifer, which sustains Great Plains agriculture. (AP, May 12)

    Meanwhile, Idaho wrapped up three weeks of hearings on Exxon Mobil Corp.’s proposed oil equipment shipments on US Highway 12, which have also sparked widespread protests. The hearings were forced by opponents who contend the loads will threaten residents’ safety and pose a threat to the Selway and Lochsa rivers. Idaho Transportation Department officials say the shipments, bound for the Kearl Oil Sands fields in Alberta, can be done safely. Shipment foes continue to challenge the plan in the courts. (AP, May 11; see also: AllAgainstTheHaul, FightingGoliath)

    These developments come as the US Senate Finance Committee held hearings on Capitol Hill into rising gasoline prices, hearing testimony form the executives of ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, BP America and Chevron—who all made the case for not scrapping tax breaks for the industry. “Given profits of $35 billion in just the first quarter alone, it’s hard to find evidence that repealing these subsidies would cut domestic production or cause layoffs,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the committee, said to the oilmen. Chevron CEO John Watson countered, “Don’t punish our industry for doing its job well.” (LAT, May 12)

  2. Exxon befouls Yellowstone River
    From AP, July 2:

    LAUREL, Mont. — An ExxonMobil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River near Billings in south-central Montana ruptured and dumped an unknown amount of oil into the waterway, prompting temporary evacuations along the river Saturday morning.

    Company spokeswoman Pam Malek, who was at the scene, said the pipe leaked for about a half-hour, though it’s not clear how much oil leaked.

    The cause of the rupture wasn’t known.

    Brent Peters, the fire chief for the city of Laurel about 12 miles east of Billings, said the break in the 12-inch diameter pipe occurred late Friday about a mile south of Laurel.

    He said about 140 people were evacuated in the area starting about 12:15 a.m Saturday due to concerns about possible explosions and the overpowering fumes.

    An update form the Billings Gazette:

    UPDATE 11:10 a.m. : ExxonMobil has two cleanup divisions in place along the Yellowstone River and is expecting an additional 100 contractors from Washington state to help in the effort.

    Kelly Drain, emergency response supervisor for the Billings refinery, said his two divisions are using absorbent pads and booms to leach up oil from the riverbanks as part of the initial 24-hour response to the spill.

    Division A is working the area from Laurel to Duck Creek Bridge and Division B is working from Duck Creek Bridge up to Lockwood, he said.

    In addition to the 100 contractors coming to help, Exxon also has mobilized its Global Response Team from Houston to help.

  3. Fuel leak on Missouri River
    From Planet Ark, Aug. 17:

    Fuel leaked from Enterprise Products Partners’ natural gas liquids pipeline into the Missouri River in Iowa has dissipated or evaporated with little chance of recovery, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said on Tuesday.

    The leak sprung in a 10 mile stretch of Enterprise’s Conway North 33,600-barrels-per-day pipeline, which extends between Nebraska and Iowa.

    The line was carrying up to 140,000 gallons of natural gasoline, a volatile liquid hydrocarbon derived from natural gas, when controllers detected a pressure drop on the line and shut down operations on Saturday.

    Enterprise’s Conway North line is the latest in a string of pipeline accidents in a year, many of which—like the leaks from Enbridge Inc’s two crude lines last summer and the 1,000 barrels of crude oil spilled from Exxon Mobil’s Silvertip pipeline in July—have raised serious environmental concerns.

  4. Nobel peace laureates protest tar sands plan
    In an open letter to President Barack Obama, nine Nobel peace laureates expressed their support for the more than 1,000 protesters who were arrested at the White House last week in a civil disobedience protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The signatories are Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, José Ramos-Horta, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi. (Censored News, Sept. 7) Many of these figures also signed an open letter calling for the abandonment of nuclear power by the world’s nations in light of the Fukushima disaster.

  5. Tribal leaders offer final push against Keystone pipeline
    Native American tribal leaders gathered in Washington DC for State Department hearings Oct. 7 on final approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, that would link the Alberta tar-sands fields with markets in Texas. Oglala Sioux President John Yellowbird Steele was one of about a dozen tribal leaders who attended the hearings to express opposition. He brought with him a recent resolution passed by the Great Plain Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) in September. The GPTCA resolution notes that developer TransCanada has so far offered a “relatively poor environmental record of the first Keystone pipeline, which includes numerous spills,” and highlights that “US regulators shut the pipeline down in late May 2011.”

    “[B]ased on the record of the first Keystone pipeline, and other factors, it is probable that further environmental disasters will occur in Indian country if the new pipeline is allowed to be constructed,” the resolution states. It also notes that several First Nations of Canada have passed resolutions supporting a moratorium on new tar sands development and expansion until an improved oversight system is in place. (ICT, Oct. 6)

    The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) also declared its opposition to the Keystone XL project in August, similarly noting the potential for grave health and environmental impacts.

    The State Department released a favorable Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in April that declared the pipeline would have “limited impact” on the environment. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency shot back with a letter critical of the State Department’s assessment, voicing concern over potential spill impacts, and noting that the pipeline route that goes right through the critical Ogallala Aquifer that serves 30% of the nation’s agriculture.

    “Keystone XL” is the name for the expansion of the Keystone pipeline, which currently runs from Hardisty, Alberta to Cushing, Okla., and Patoka, Ill. Keystone XL would depart from Hardisty and take a more direct route to Steele City, Neb., where it would rejoin the extant Keystone to Cushing, then continue south to Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. (ICT, Aug. 18)

  6. Native Americans lead procession around White House
    From Climate Connections, Nov. 6:

    Thousands of citizens from both the United States and Canada representing every background circled the White House today and joined hands to protest the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Recently the US State Department signaled that they would not be meeting their self imposed year-end deadline of 2011 to deny or approve the permit of Transcanada. President Obama took responsibility for the final decision from Secretary of State Clinton earlier this week. This came on the heels of the President being confronted at almost every stop across America over the controversial decision. Most recently Vice President of the Oglala Lakota Nation Tom Poorbear confronted President Obama in Denver at a University of Colorado campaign speech.

    “The United States of America is obligated to honor the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties it made with the Lakota Nation and other indigenous nations. We are extremely concerned about the lack of consultation we have experienced in the dealings of the US State department on the Environmental Impact Review of the project. In his election, President Obama promised a new deal between Native America and the White House, saying no to the Keystone XL is a good place to start,” said Oglala Lakota Nation Vice President Tom Poorbear.

    Oglala Lakota Nation grassroots member and spiritual leader Debra White Plume spoke at the rally, “Love for Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and our generations are the bedrock of my resistance to the Transcanada oil pipeline. I have come here to be part of this peaceful circle of people to shine a light on President Obama to be visionary and deny a corporate plan whose promise of destruction of our lands is certain. President Obama will be an Earth Warrior, standing in the way of something bad coming toward the people, or he will step aside for Transcanada to foul our water, land, and health for generations to come. It is a decision of global magnitude, all over Unci Maka, we will forever see if he is to shine in the light of love and life, or if he will disappear into the darkness of greed and deceit.”

  7. Obama blinks on Keystone pipeline
    The State Department announced on Nov. 10 that it will explore a new route for the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, pushing a final decision on the controversial project past the 2012 election. “Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood,” President Obama said in a statement. (USA Today, Nov. 10)

    The decision comes days after the State Department’s inspector general announced a special investigation of the handling of the pending decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in response to reports of improper pressure on policy makers and possible conflicts of interest. Harold W. Geisel, the senior official in the inspector general’s office, told top agency officials in a memorandum dated Nov. 4 that he would open the review “to determine to what extent the department and all other parties involved complied with federal laws and regulations” relating to the pipeline permit process.

    More than a dozen members of Congress had asked for an independent inquiry into the department’s review of the 1,700-mile pipeline, citing reports in the New York Times and elsewhere that the State Department allowed the pipeline developer, TransCanada, to choose the company that prepared the project’s environmental impact assessment. That company, Cardno Entrix, listed TransCanada as a “major client” on other projects and has a financial relationship with the pipeline developer.

    The assessment found that the project would have “minimal” environmental impact even though it would pass through Nebraska’s sensitive Sand Hills region and traverse the Ogallala Aquifer. The Environmental Protection Agency raised serious objections to an earlier version of the impact statement, but has not issued its final decision.

    One of TransCanada’s principal lobbyists, Paul Elliott, was a senior staff member in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

    “We welcome an independent review by the inspector general’s office so that these latest claims by professional activists and lawmakers who are adamantly opposed to our pipeline project can be addressed,” said TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha. (NYT, Nov. 7)

  8. TransCanada agrees to move Keystone pipeline route
    From AP, Nov. 14:

    LINCOLN, Neb. — TransCanada will move the route of its planned oil pipeline out of the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area of Nebraska, two company officials announced Monday night.

    Speaking at a news conference at the Nebraska Capitol, the officials said TransCanada would agree to the new route, a move the company previously said wasn’t possible, as part of an effort to push through the proposed $7 billion project. They expressed confidence the project would ultimately be approved.

    Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president for energy and oil pipelines, said rerouting the line would likely require 30 to 40 additional miles.

    “We’re confident that collaborating with the state of Nebraska will make this process much easier,” Pourbaix said.