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News Extra - Spate of US oil pipeline leaks casts shadow over Keystone XL project

02 March 2015

President Barak Obama vetoed a bill in late February that would have fast-tracked approval of the Canada-US Keystone XL pipeline, a major project to transport shale oil from the US interior to transhipment points on the coast.

This will ensure that the final decision about whether or not to allow the project to go forward will be his to make, based on recommendations from the State Department. President Obama has made it clear in recent weeks that he will not OK the project unless it can be established that the pipeline will not significantly contribute to carbon pollution and environmental destruction.

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would be laid between the oil sands terminal at Hardisty in Alberta and Steele City in Nebraska, for the onward transport of oil to the Gulf of Mexico and Midwestern destinations by existing pipeline networks.

The high volume pipeline would run through Baker, Montana, where American-produced light crude oil from the Bakken formation of Montana and North Dakota would be added to synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from the oil sands of Canada.

Apart from general objections to the project’s effect on climate change because of the alleged dirtiness of Alberta’s oil sands extraction methods, increasing numbers of serious pipeline leaks are muting support for the pipeline in the US.

There are ongoing problems with maintenance of the nation’s 61,000 miles of crude oil pipelines, many of which are more than 40 years old. The number of significant pipeline-related accidents involving crude has been growing each year since 2009 according to US Department of Transportation records. At least 73 such accidents occurred in 2014 — an 87% increase over 2009.

This increase has come as surging US oil production boosted crude shipments by pipeline by about 20%, to 8.3 billion barrels annually, between 2009 and 2013, the most recent year available. With pipeline capacity now stretched, producers’ only other alternative is to ship the crude by train, which has caused its own problems.

One of the worst recent pipeline spills saw some 30,000 gallons of crude spilled into Montana’s Yellowstone River in January. This temporarily fouled the water supply of the city of Glendive and caused pollution along a considerable stretch of the river.

Keystone would move up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day. A break in the line could dwarf the Glendive accident, where the pipeline had a capacity of just 42,000 barrels daily.

The Glendive spill was the latest of several where pipelines cross watercourses. In July 2011 an ExxonMobil pipeline also leaked oil into the Yellowstone River, and later that year another spilled more than 28,350 gallons of a gasoline additive into the Missouri River in Iowa. A June 2012 spill in Alberta, Canada, saw an oil pipeline leak more than 122,000 gallons of light crude into the Red Deer River.

These were all the result of river scour, where riverbed erosion uncovered and breached the pipeline. Since the 2011 incidents, dozens of pipelines have been found to be too close to riverbed bottoms and have been reburied deeper.

Another leak of a different kind in January, involving a pipeline carrying produced water, spilled nearly three million gallons into creeks and rivers near Williston, North Dakota. Produced water is brine flowback from a fracked well and contains oil, fracking fluid and other chemical compounds. It  is more difficult to clean up than oil and the North Dakota Department of Health has said this remediation operation could take more than five years.

The project’s supporters, however, say the spills are evidence of why new pipelines like Keystone XL are desperately needed, being far more technologically advanced and robust than the ageing infrastructure currently in use.

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