Following a long history of spills across its 27,000 miles of piping, the Keystone Pipeline System burst near the Kansas-Nebraska border on December 9, marking its largest oil spill in history.
Owned by TC Energy, the pipeline carries Canadian tar-sands oil to refineries in the US at an operating pressure that exceeds levels otherwise permitted for US oil pipelines. While issues of continued operations spark controversy among environmentalists, current efforts to mitigate the 14,000-barrel spill are limited to the clean-up project underway in the Mill Creek area.
At the moment, TC Energy has more than 250 workers on the ground to vacuum the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of oil out of Mill Creek. As the type of oil that flows through the Keystone Pipeline has a more sludge-like consistency than typical crude oil, it sinks into the ground, making it difficult to fully clean a contaminated body of water.
The Environmental Protection Agency is also overseeing the clean-up process, which currently has no predicted end date according to Kellen Ashford, an EPA spokesperson. As of now, there have been no reported deaths of locals or wildlife and access to the area is blocked; however, it should be noted that the extent of ramifications to ecosystems is not fully understood.
"This is going to be months, maybe even years, before we get the full handle on this disaster and know the extent of the damage and get it all cleaned up," Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club remarked.
Shortly after the spill, TC Energy was able to contain the spill by constructing an earthen dam about 3 miles down the creek, blocking the oil from connecting waterways and preventing the contamination of drinking water.
Despite an abundant history of spills, the Keystone Pipeline has over 50 special conditions allowed by its permit due to the superior quality of steel that comprises its pipes as compared to other lines in the country. This special permit outlines the allowance of higher operating pressures than typically authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
At the moment, TC Energy has halted operations of the pipeline until all clean-up efforts are complete and the pipes are in working order, but investors with stock in oil are pushing for continued operations as soon as possible.
Immediately following the shutdown, the price of oil spiked by 5%, significantly disrupting the market; however, with each incident, including three major spills since 2018, environmentalists further question the consequences of Keystone’s unprecedented operations.
The controversy surrounding the Keystone Pipeline is far from new, with its direct threats to surrounding environments and communities. In efforts to protect affected individuals, President Biden shut down efforts to build Keystone XL, an extension of the pipeline’s system, immediately following his inauguration in 2021; however, oil companies and other stakeholders continue to push for increased operations.
Once Keystone is running again after the New Year, it is unlikely any long-term changes will be made to either TC Energy’s permits or the quality of the pipes themselves. In response to this spill, the company stated, "We take every incident very seriously. No incident is ever acceptable to us," yet increasingly worse spills continue to occur with irrevocable damages for all parties involved.
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