Keystone oil spill in Kansas
The bank of Mill Creek in Washington County, Kansas, following a rupture of the Keystone Pipeline on Wednesday, December 7th, 2022. (Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Near­ly 600,000 gal­lons of oil, equal to 14,000 bar­rels, spilled from the Key­stone Pipeline into a rur­al Kansas creek last week, the country’s largest pipeline spill in twelve years and the twen­ty-third spill since the pipeline became oper­a­tional ear­ly in the past decade.

The pipeline, owned by TC Ener­gy, car­ries up to 600,000 bar­rels a day of heavy oil from the tar stands of north­ern Alber­ta to Cum­ber­land, Oklahoma.

One of America’s major envi­ron­men­tal con­tro­ver­sies arose dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, caus­ing the 44th Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States to reject a planned exten­sion (Key­stone XL) to export ter­mi­nals on the Gulf of Mexico.

“The dis­charge has been con­tained and no drink­ing water has been impact­ed,” the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency claimed in a statement.

The spill site is sur­round­ed by pas­ture­land. TC Ener­gy said it had deployed 250 crews to the spill and installed booms and vac­u­um trucks to clean it up.

True impacts of a spill often are not imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent. A 2010 spill from the Enbridge Pipeline in Michi­gan dumped more than a mil­lion gal­lons of oil into the Kala­ma­zoo Riv­er and ulti­mate­ly cost $1.21 bil­lion to clean up.

The spill is like­ly to grow con­tro­ver­sy that can­not – and should not – be con­tained. Repub­li­cans are set to regain con­trol of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and push for an “Unleash Amer­i­can Ener­gy” pro­gram that would restore and expand oil drilling in pub­lic lands and waters, min­ing of coal, as well as push for build­ing more refiner­ies and pipelines.

“We should nev­er have shut down the Key­stone Pipeline: That is what Joe Biden did on day one,” Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cathy McMor­ris Rodgers, R‑Washington, set to chair the pow­er­ful House Ener­gy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, told CNBC in a pre-elec­tion interview.

Con­tro­ver­sy over Key­stone XL, the pro­posed expan­sion, has tak­en atten­tion from the already exist­ing Key­stone Pipeline, which sup­plies Mid­west refineries.

Many of its spills have been small, some not-so-small.

In 2017, 6,500 bar­rels spilled near Amherst, South Dako­ta, while two years lat­er a 4,500 bar­rel rup­ture took place near Edin­burg, North Dakota.

Keystone pipeline route
Oper­a­tional and pro­posed route of the Key­stone Pipeline Sys­tem. (Data source: Tran­sCana­da, graph­ic by Wiki­me­dia con­trib­u­tors cmglee, Meclee, Flap­piefh, Lokal_Profil et al.)

The Key­stone XL expan­sion has been the holy grail in Repub­li­cans’ ener­gy advo­ca­cy over the last dozen years.

It was also a project on which cli­mate activists drew the line. Envi­ron­men­tal protests, spawned by a new group called, brought demon­stra­tors to the White House. Actress Daryl Han­nah and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., were arrest­ed in one protest.

Unit­ed States approval of the trans-bound­ary project was “a no-brain­er”, Canada’s then-Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harp­er told a gath­er­ing of approv­ing investors in New York.

Not so. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma reject­ed Key­stone XL.

And protests direct­ed at anoth­er pipeline spread to the Dakotas.

The Stand­ing Rock Sioux tribe argued that the Dako­ta Access Pipeline would endan­ger their drink­ing and irri­ga­tion water. Trib­al mem­bers camped out on the pipeline route and were joined, at one point, by actress Jane Fon­da. The deploy­ment of police dogs did not enhance the image of the pipeline builder.

Don­ald Trump came into office, revers­ing Obama’s deci­sion and giv­ing a green light to Key­stone XL. The 45th pres­i­dent ordered the Sec­re­tary of the Army to expe­dite per­mit­ting for Dako­ta Access. But the path for Key­stone XL was not clear. Envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns held up the project in the courts.

Can­di­date Joe Biden pledged in 2020 to block Key­stone XL, and did upon assum­ing the pres­i­den­cy. TC Ener­gy gave up on the project.

But not Cathy McMor­ris Rodgers. She wants the 1,200-mile project put back on the front burn­er. CMR is to sound bites what Bil­ly Gra­ham was to the Bible. Although Key­stone XL would take years to com­plete – and the oil would be bound for export – she has con­tin­ued to turn out lines like: “We need to flip the switch.”

A recip­i­ent of gen­er­ous con­tri­bu­tions from the Oil Patch, McMor­ris Rodgers has ven­tured down to Texas, warn­ing of Russ­ian oil pro­duc­tion and decry­ing the Green New Deal, while deliv­er­ing a new line: “I think we should put Mid­land over Moscow.” She head­ed oppo­si­tion to the Infla­tion Reduc­tion Act on the House floor.

Of course, the argu­ment can be made – to which there is some truth – that pipelines are safer than oil trains in trans­port­ing crude.

The Lac-Megan­tic oil train explo­sion of 2013 destroyed a small town in Que­bec and killed 47 peo­ple. But pipelines do go beneath major rivers and above the Ogal­lala Aquifer, vital to Mid­west agriculture.

The Alber­ta tar sands, pic­tured from the air, look like Mor­dor from Lord of the Rings. Tar sands oil is tough to deal with when spilled. It is heavy and sinks to the bot­tom of any water­way in which it is spilled.

The expan­sion of Canada’s Trans­Moun­tain Pipeline, from Alber­ta to Burn­a­by, B.C., means a sev­en­fold increase in tanker traf­fic through Haro Strait, the bound­ary between our San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

The project has been opposed by Wash­ing­ton Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee and for­mer B.C. Pre­mier John Hor­gan and his suc­ces­sor David Eby.

The Sier­ra Club put it well in react­ing to the Key­stone spill in Kansas: “There is no such thing as a safe tar sands pipeline and this is anoth­er dis­as­ter that con­tin­ues to prove we must pro­tect our cli­mate and our com­mu­ni­ties first.”

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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