Recent Oil Spills Could Trip Up Keystone XL Approval

Oil sands crude is harder to clean up than conventional oil, experts say.

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A poll finds strong support for Keystone XL, these protesters aside.

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It seems the odds have increasingly been in favor of Keystone XL supporters in recent months with the approval of a revised pipeline route through Nebraska and a draft environmental impact study from the State Department that found the project would have little impact on climate change.

But two separate oil spills last week could change the tone of the debate that continues to swirl around the controversial pipeline project, which would bring crude oil from the oil sands region in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the United States.

[READ: Keystone XL Critics Use Comics to Combat Pipeline]

An ExxonMobil pipeline transporting heavy crude from Canada ruptured Friday dumping thousands of barrels of oil and water in an Arkansas subdivision, forcing the evacuation of almost two dozen homes according to Reuters. Exxon's Pegasus pipeline—which has a capacity of more than 90,000 barrels per day—was shut down shortly after the leak was discovered. Company officials had no estimate on when the pipeline might reopen as of Sunday.

The incident in Arkansas came just days after a train carrying Canadian oil derailed in Western Minnesota spilling an estimated 30,000 gallons of crude. Due to pipeline capacity constraints, crude oil has increasingly been shipped by rail in recent years as production has ramped up in North America. The spill in Minnesota is the "first major spill of the modern North American crude-by-rail transit boom," Reuters noted.

Both spills have riled up critics of the pipeline project who argue the accidents are wake-up calls and small preview of the carnage that could result from a leak in the Keystone XL pipeline, which has a capacity almost 10 times that of Exxon's Pegasus. Opponents argue that the product from oil sands is dirtier and more difficult to clean up than conventional crude oil and that the industry has not developed effective ways to manage oil sands spills yet.

[READ: Keystone Still Faces Delays, Fierce Opposition]

"Conventional oil spill responses are largely ineffective" when it comes to addressing tar sands oil spills says Danielle Droitsch, director of the Canada project at the Natural Resource Defense Council. "The spill in Arkansas illustrates the key point that we are not ready for a massive tar sands pipeline to go through America. The risk is much greater than any reward."

Droitsch also cited an incident in 2010 when more than 800,000 barrels of oil sands oil spilled near Marshall, Mich., thanks to a pipeline break, ultimately pooling into the nearby Kalamazoo River. Clean-up efforts are still ongoing almost three years after the incident, but experts and the EPA expect traces of the petroleum product to remain in the river environment forever.

"It will never be cleaned up," Droitsch adds.

But supporters of the pipeline say aligning recent spill incidents with a hypothetical Keystone XL accident isn't comparing apples to apples, especially since the trans-border pipeline is being outfitted with what they say are state-of-the-art safety features. The pipeline's operator TransCanada has agreed to 57 new safety procedures including burying the pipeline deeper, installing more shut-off valves, and increasing the frequency of pipeline inspections.

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"No one has a stronger interest than TransCanada does in making sure that Keystone XL is designed, constructed and operated safely and reliably," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard wrote in an email.

Nevertheless, opponents say there's still hope that the Keystone XL pipeline will remain in limbo. Though an increasing chorus of experts say approval of the pipeline is likely, incidents like the spills last week raise important questions about whether the Keystone XL pipeline is really in the nation's public interest, a determination ultimately up to the State Department and White House.

"The State Department has the opportunity to look at the Pegasus pipeline spill and consider what could happen if the Keystone XL were to spill," Droitsch says. "They really haven't done that since the draft [environmental impact statement] came out and with [Secretary of State John] Kerry there might be a renewed interest in looking at the potential impacts."



Updated on 4/1/13: This article was updated to clarify a quote referring to oil spill clean-up responses.