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Local, state, federal agencies respond to Keystone Pipeline oil spill in Kansas

14,000 barrels, or nearly 590,000 gallons, spilled this week
Posted at 2:36 PM, Dec 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-09 15:39:54-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Federal authorities have issued a corrective orders and an investigation after nearly 590,000 gallons of oil spilled from the Keystone Pipeline Wednesday night about 150 miles northwest of Kansas City.

The Associated Press reported Friday afternoon that federal data indicate the spill is the largest in the 12-year history of the pipeline.

The spill caught the attention of US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is now investigating the incident.

Buttigieg said a Corrective Action Order has been issued, which requires the impacted segment to shut down.

TC Energy, who owns and runs the pipeline, said Friday the system had been shut down as of Wednesday evening. As of 2:18 p.m. CT, the company says it has expanded the workforce at the site, which now also includes remediation crews.

The company says oil has been contained and through vacuum trucks and booms, crews are starting to recover the oil.

Response efforts also include plans for repair, and air quality monitoring.

The company says a timetable for a return-to-service are under evaluation.

"Over the last several years, we have taken decisive action to implement measures to strengthen our approach to safety and the integrity of our system, and will conduct a full investigation into the root cause of this incident, in cooperation with regulators," the company posted on its website.

The Kansas Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued a stream advisory for Mill Creek from 18th Road to Little Blue River. Those who live near the stream are asked to not enter it or allow livestock, children or pets to enter the stream.

In September 2013, a Tesoro Corp. pipeline in North Dakota ruptured and spilled 20,600 barrels, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.

A more expensive spill happened in July 2010, when an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Michigan ruptured and spilled more than 20,000 barrels into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Hundreds of homes and businesses were evacuated.

The Keystone pipeline's previous largest spill came in 2017, when more than 6,500 barrels spilled near Amherst, South Dakota, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last year. The second largest, 4,515 barrels, was in 2019 near Edinburg, North Dakota.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said drinking water wells were not affected by this week's spill and the oil didn't move from the creek to larger waterways. The spill was in pastureland about 5 miles (8 kilometers) northeast of Washington, the county seat of about 1,100 residents and no evacuations were ordered.

Pipelines are often considered safer than shipping oil by railcar or truck, but large spills can create significant environmental damage.

The nearly 2,700-mile Keystone pipeline carries thick, Canadian tar-sands oil to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas. An arm of the Transportation Department that oversees pipeline safety permitted operator TC Energy run the pipeline at pressure greater than is usually allowed if the company used pipe made from better steel.

In a report to Congress last year, the Government Accountability Office said Keystone’s accident history was similar to other oil pipelines, but the spills have gotten larger in recent years. Investigations ordered by regulators found that the four worst spills were caused by flaws in design or pipe manufacturing during construction.

The TC Energy permit included more than 50 special conditions, including on its design, construction and operation, the GAO report said. Bill Caram, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy Pipeline Safety Trust, said Friday that he would have thought that the additional safety measures would have been enough to offset the pipeline’s higher pressure.

“When we see multiple failures like this of such large size and a relatively short amount of time after that pressure has increased, I think it’s time to question that,” Caram said, noting the 2017 and 2019 spills.

Concerns that spills could pollute waterways spurred opposition to plans by TC Energy to build another crude oil pipeline in the Keystone system, which would have cut across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Critics also argued that using crude from western Canada’s oil sands would worsen climate change, and President Joe Biden’s cancelation of a U.S. permit for the project led the company to pull the plug last year.

The spill caused a brief surge in crude prices Thursday. Benchmark U.S. oil was up more modestly -- about 1% — on Friday morning as fears of a supply disruption were overshadowed by bigger concerns about an economic downturn in the U.S. and other major countries that would reduce demand for oil.

Tom Kloza, an Oil Price Information Service analyst, said that oil is now perceived as plentiful, “and this mishap will not have any appreciable impact on gasoline or diesel prices.” Prices at the pump will continue to drop a few cents a day, or even more, and that between Canadian imports and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the U.S. has enough crude to last more than three years at current demand, he said.

Patrick De Haan, an analyst for GasBuddy, which operates a price-tracking app, said there is pressure to repair the pipeline quickly and keep refineries supplied, adding that “if it lasts more than a few days, that could spell trouble."

Past Keystone spills have led to outages that lasted about two weeks, but this outage could possibly be longer because it involves a body of water, RBC Capital Markets analysts said in a note to investors. Though it's possible that a portion of the pipeline could restart sooner, they said.

The spill was 5 miles (8 kilometers) northeast of Washington, the county seat of about 1,100 residents.

The pipeline runs through Chris and Bill Pannbacker’s family farm. The hill where the breach happened was a landmark to locals and used to be a popular destination for hayrides, said Bill Pannbacker, a farmer and stockman. He disagreed with the company’s decision to build the pipeline over that 80-foot hill rather than bore through it, now questioning himself for relenting.

“I wish I would have held firmer. And I bet now they wish I would have held firmer too because I’m assuming the flow against that bend in the pipe is maybe what caused some of the problem.”