Yellowstone River Oil Spill Raises Specter of Keystone XL Pipeline

This is a guest post from Larry Winslow of the Northern Plains Resource Council – It outlays some of the issues of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, all brought to the forefront because of Exxon’s crime of negligence on the Yellowstone River. I’m extremely grateful for his information – jhwygirl

The rupture and release of 42,000 gallons of crude oil from an Exxon pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River brings home to Montanans the need for improved oversight and careful planning of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Keystone XL pipeline is proposed to carry corrosive tar sands oil across 250 miles of Montana en route from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Its route will include 400 water crossings in Montana, including the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

The difference between the two pipelines is huge, with the Keystone XL pipeline projected to carry 22.5 times as much oil per day as the Exxon pipeline. The 12-inch Silvertip Exxon pipeline that ruptured July 1 carried 40,000 barrels of Wyoming crude a day to the Exxon refinery east of Billings. TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline will be 36 inches in diameter and carry up to 900,000 pressurized barrels of corrosive tar sands oil a day.

More than 200 miles downriver from the Exxon spill, Buffalo Rapids Irrigation District in Glendive shut down its pumps Saturday morning as a precaution. It had yet to turn them back on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m concerned about oil getting into our irrigation system. This concerns me and my neighbors,” said James Whitmer, board member of the Buffalo Rapids Irrigation District said.

TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline in eastern North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska began transporting Alberta tar sands oil a year ago and is already responsible for 12 oil spills, despite TransCanada’s reassurances that a spill-incident of 50 barrels or more would only occur once every seven years.

“This really scares me,” said Doris Frost of Miles City, a member of the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group who irrigates from the Yellowstone River where the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to cross. “We are talking about a pipeline that carries more than 20 times the oil that the Exxon pipeline carries, and it’s far more corrosive material. The State Department, Montana DEQ, and everyone else involved in the permitting process needs to take a hard look at what is being proposed.”

A report released in February by the National Resources Defense Council and other groups showed that pipelines carrying diluted tar sands (bitumen) have a higher rate of corrosion failure. Diluted bitumen is the heavy tar sands oil extracted, mixed with natural gas condensates.

“The oil industry is always saying that the chances of a leak are nil to zero, and responses in the case of a leak would be quick and thorough,” said Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust. “However, that wasn’t the case with the Gulf oil spill, the Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan, the Chevron pipeline spill in Salt Lake City, and the dozen spills on TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline.”

The U.S. State Department, which has authority to grant a presidential permit approving Keystone XL’s construction, had its initial Environmental Impact Statement rejected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “inadequate” because significant environmental impacts had not been sufficiently evaluated. The State Department is now preparing a second EIS. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has yet to issue its permit as well. Members of the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group have requested that DEQ attach specific conditions to any permit to improve the safety of the pipeline.

In Congress, a House subcommittee passed fast-track legislation in mid-June that would order Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reach a decision on the project by November 1. The bill now has to be voted on by the entire House. The bill would compel Clinton to over-rule demands for a further review of the project from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and disregard local safety concerns from landowners along the Keystone XL pipeline’s 1,700-mile route.

  1. RP

    What’s the viscosity difference between the oil in the two pipelines? How much faster (slower) and farther would a keystone spill flow than the Exxon spill near Laurel? How much more pressure in the keystone line?

    • They’re all pressurized, so viscosity would only come into play once it leaks.

      900,000 gallons a day is 37,500 gallons per hour, 625 gallons a minute.

      What was the capacity on Exxon’s broken line????? Exxon has yet to confirm how long it took to actually shut it down – they did say they ‘started shut-down within 6 minutes of loss in pressure,’ which really doesn’t say much.

  2. RP

    That was my point – viscosity matters once it is no longer pressurized. So a heavy crude from the tar sands might not flow as far and wide as light crude from WY once it accidentally leaves the pipeline.

    • Here’s the problem. first of all, I recognize that if we use oil, we’re going to have accidents.

      As an industry, though, they are faux-regulated. When was the last spill that was, truly, purely a freak accident? Valdez was drunk, BP rushed their drilling process against engineers advice, fracturing the well and stressing the casing. then there was the freak valve thing…but remember – they wouldn’t have gotten to the freak valve if they had listened to the engineers.

      We’re finding plenty of Exxon’s ineptitude and probable criminal negligence here – just as we’ve found elsewhere.

      One thing about history – it repeats itself.

      • as long as we reward bad behavior we will get more of it. calculate the cost of paying for accidents vs the cost of doing it right.

        if doing it right costs less than paying for accidents then government needs to step in with GIGANTIC FINES so that equation leans the other way.

        as long as it pays more to cut corners companies will keep cutting corners.

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