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Will The Latest Keystone Spill Change The Fate Of The Nebraska Pipeline?

A major decision about a new pipeline happens on November 20. Amazingly, the commissioners are not supposed to review oil spill risks as part of the decision.

Will The Latest Keystone Spill Change The Fate Of The Nebraska Pipeline?
“We’re never surprised when TransCanada’s pipelines spill.”

On Thursday, days before Nebraska regulators decide whether to grant a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline in the state to TransCanada, the company behind the project, the first Keystone pipeline–which runs from Canada through the Great Plains–spilled around 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

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Activists opposing Keystone XL say that it’s more evidence that the project shouldn’t move forward in Nebraska. “We’re never surprised when TransCanada’s pipelines spill,” says Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, an anti-pipeline group, and head of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “This is now the seventeenth leak since TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline began operation starting in 2010. They used foreign steel, which is much weaker steel–and in fact, they have used faulty steel, from an Indian company called Welspun. So we’re not surprised when we hear news that it leaked.”

In one spill of 400 barrels of oil in 2011–around 12 times smaller than the newest spill–a rancher discovered crude oil spurting out of a pumping station in North Dakota. The leak was blamed on a section of pipe that was installed incorrectly. In another spill of an estimated 400 barrels in 2016, the company discovered that a “small weld anomaly” had caused a slow leak over a longer period of time.

“They lie to states and these state senators don’t have time to do the research on their own.” [Photo: mycteria/iStock]
The Nebraska Public Utilities Commission will make its decision on permitting for the new Keystone XL pipeline on Monday morning, in one of the last steps for the controversial project. Because of the influence of TransCanada when the state wrote laws about pipeline permitting, the commissioners are not supposed to review oil spill risks as they consider the new pipeline.

“[TransCanada] spent over a million dollars over just a two-year period lobbying 49 state senators,” says Kleeb. “They made sure that the public service commission could not review oil spill risks and other pipeline safety measures, which is a familiar thing that big oil companies do in states. They lie to states and these state senators don’t have time to do the research on their own. They tell them that they can’t regulate pipeline safety risk, which is a lie, they can.”

Still, she says, it’s likely that the latest news will make a difference. “You can’t look at a spill of this size and not think to yourself, ‘What if that was the Sand Hills, what if that was the Niobrara River, what if it was the Platte River?’ So I think that yes, it would have an impact on people’s decisions.”

The decision on Monday is likely to be very close. “I think it will be a 3-2 split either way, and I think there will be a long haul in front of us with legal challenges to the decision. There’s a formal appeals process that either side could go in. I don’t think this will be the last you hear from Keystone.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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