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The Latest Spill Finds Politicians Ankle Deep in Tar Sands Oil

Environment Policy Brief #151 | By: Todd J. Broadman | January 3, 2023

Header photo taken from: TC Energy

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Around 14,000 barrels of oil leaked into rural Kansas; officials managed to stop the oil infecting the water supply in northeastern Kansas, but a massive cleanup operation is now needed.

Photo taken from: Uncredited / AP / REX / Shutterstock

Policy Summary

Since the beginning of its operations in 2010, the Keystone pipeline has experienced 22 oil spills totaling 26,000 barrels of tar sands oil leaked into the surrounding land and water. The pipeline traverses approximately 2,700 miles, starting from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada and terminating at refinery locations in the Midwest and Oklahoma. The pipeline’s owner and operator is TC Energy.

The most recent leak occurred on December 7, 2022, and spilled an estimated 14,000 barrels of oil. As each barrel is the equivalent of 42 gallons, this a record 600,000-gallon spill, the biggest spill on US soil over the last decade.

Government agencies responsible for the pipeline’s regulation and spill cleanup efforts are: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), as well as state and local agencies. The permit to operate the pipeline was issued by PHMSA. The pipeline was operating at 80 percent of the maximum recommended rate – actually, above the maximum 72 percent rate, and the exception in this case was granted to TC Energy because the pipeline was made “using higher-grade steel.”

The pipeline does not carry conventional oil, it carries a crude tar sands oil termed bitumen, far heavier than conventional oil. Bitumen needs to be thinned to allow for flow through the pipeline and that is done by incorporating a lighter gas called a diluent. When this mixture is exposed to the environment in the event of a spill though, its chemical composition reverts back to its original thick consistency.

From research done in a very large 2010 spill which took place in Michigan, the extent of environmental damage and “special risks” caused by bitumen were detailed. According to scientists, “The response becomes more complex because there are few proven techniques in the responder ‘tool box’ for detection, containment, and recovery.” In that Kalamazoo River spill, it proved easier to dredge and remove entire rocks than to attempt to scrape off the bitumen coating.

Fearing just this kind of incident or worse, President Joe Biden cancelled the proposed pipeline extension, Keystone XL, in 2021. TC Energy is still pressing for this additional line which would pipe the sludge directly through Montana, and then to South Dakota and Nebraska. Matt Casale, director with U.S. PIRG, said, “The latest spill is another tragic reminder of the costs of our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Policy Analysis

The construction permits for the Keystone extension “XL” were revoked by the Obama administration only to be approved by Trump. Biden, soon after being elected, again revoked the XL permits. Throughout the process though, advocates were advertising Keystone as the “safest pipeline ever built.” When the spills started mounting, the GAO issued a report that said the material failures were the result of “construction issues.”

“It is a lemon,” said Paul Blackburn, an attorney with Bold Alliance specializing in pipeline law. “It’s leaked a remarkable number of times and while there may be certain kinds of specific causes for each leak, the fact that it leaks so often suggests that there may be some underlying systemic reasons on what’s going wrong.” One report pointed to substandard steel and a lack of corrosion protection. Land that was not willingly sold to TC Energy for the pipeline was taken through eminent domain along with an access easement.

From a broader perspective, we know that most crude-oil spills originate from rail and truck transport, not from pipelines. The PHMSA points out that there are thousands of spills involving hazardous materials, many on a much larger scale – that involve non-petroleum related chemicals. Even when it is oil, much of that oil is recovered in the remediation efforts.

Beyond the typical demonstrations of political outrage, there are no motions at the federal or state level to halt the flow of bitumen from Canada. “I request that TC Energy provide a formal plan for preventing further oil spills and for remediating the significant damage caused by this most recent incident,” is the reaction of Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.


After Keystone oil spill, Kansas governor called pipeline property tax exemption "a big mistake."

Photo taken from: Topeka Capital Journal

Along those same tepid lines, there is Senator (D-MA) Ed Markey’s, “enough is enough,” comment. In a letter to TC Energy President and CEO François Poirier, he wrote: “Communities threatened by your pipeline urgently need an explanation of how and why these spills keep happening, and whether your company will continue to put people nationwide and our environment at risk.”

More tangible action comes from Kansas Governor Laura Kelly who is threatening TC Energy’s state property tax exemptions for the pipeline. “I thought we should have done that a long time ago,” Kelly said. Kansas lawmakers had, early on, passed a package of tax benefits in their effort to woo the Keystone pipeline to Kansas. Fines levied on TC Energy have thus far totaled $300,000.

The company’s official communications on this and other spills have been carefully formatted. “We have the people, expertise, training and equipment to mount an effective response and clean-up, and that’s what we’re doing.” Meanwhile, they have gotten the green light to restart the remaining segment of the Keystone pipeline – which runs from Nebraska to Oklahoma – that had been shut down since the Dec. 7 spill.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

https://pirg.org/ is an advocate for the public interest, speaking out for a healthier, safer world.

https://boldalliance.org/ is a network of “small and mighty” groups in rural states working to protect land and water.

https://tarsandsaction.org/ an activist group moved by the 1,253 Americans who went jail to protest Keystone in the biggest civil disobedience action in many years in this country.

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