The Keystone XL decision is still underway. While pipeline routes are being adjusted for this project, a similar Exxon pipeline carrying the same oil type has had a major spill in Arkansas. The "Pegasus" pipeline is now releasing thousands of barrels of oil. This example is a regular occurrence. Oil pipelines leak. What would happen if the Keystone XL pipeline sprung a similar leak on it's original route?
By comparing the scale of the Keystone XL project with currently leaking and recently leaking pipelines, considering the route decisions underway for Keystone, and considering the impact of a disaster on proposed routes, the political decisions made to temporarily halt the process while a new route is considered showed leadership and vision by the Obama administration.
First, lets look at the scale of the Pegasus pipeline that is currently leaking. This is a 90,000 barrel per day capacity pipeline. The expansion of the 20 inch pipeline was completed in 2009. This is an advanced technology pipeline that is supposed to detect leaks. This pipeline was completed just four years ago.
In 2011 Exxon had a similar incident when it's 12-inch Silvertip pipeline leaked 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River.
The Keystone XL projected would have a 36-inch pipeline that carries 830,000 barrels per day. The southern leg has been approved and is under construction. The Northern leg is being re-planned to take a different route. The original Keystone pipeline became operational in 2010.
Each pipeline carries oil that is referred to as "Canadian Wabasca heavy crude," or "heavy bitumen crude," which is corrosive.
The Keystone XL pipeline is almost double the size of a currently leaking pipeline and carries more than nine times the quantity of corrosive fuel per day. Keystone XL problems have the potential to release massive quantities more of oil.
Key Route Problems of the Northern Section of Keystone XL
The Northern leg proposal was to take the pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world. Not only does the aquifer supply water for 2.3 million people, but 30% of all irrigation water for America's farmland comes from this single source, which crosses six states.
For national context see the circled region:
The proposed routes and alternatives have begun to go around the Nebraska Sandhills, which is very sensitive environmental area, but continue to cut straight through the water supply.
Some reports describe how TransCanada focused it's rerouting on going around property of landowners who most vocally opposed the pipeline. The rerouting does skirt the sandhills, but does not go around the critically important fresh water supply.
TransCanada posted a map of the proposed northern leg. Notice in this map the rust colored line showing the Keystone route already in operation since 2010. Planners of this route knew to go completely around the Ogallala Aquifer and over thicker soil that would not allow oil could to leak through into ground water. Here's TransCanada's own map image.
Heavy bitumen crude is extremely difficult to clean up during an accident because it sinks. Skimmers are able to collect other forms of oil on the surface. Now, imagine this form of crude spilled in an underground water source that reaches six states and irrigates our farms. Watch this video from the Pegasus spill to see how hard this is to clean up, above ground, when we can reach it by hand.
Special Conditions of Northern Leg Make Matters Worse
Not only did TransCanada apply for a route through one of the largest fresh water supplies in the world, but it applied for using thinner pipeline, operating at higher pressure than normal, through a seismic zone that had a 4.3 magnitude earthquake as recently as 2002.
A study was released, which said that the pipeline would have "limited adverse environmental impacts." The New York Times dug deeper and learned that the producer of the study, a company called Cardno Entrix, in it's own marketing materials describes TransCanada as a major client.
Republicans have pushed to get this through as quickly as possible. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney promised that on his first day in office he'd approve the pipeline with it's initial design.
President Obama approved the southern portion and asked for a rerouting of the northern portion around critical areas.
Here is video of President Obama as he fast tracked the Southern portion of the Keystone XL. He mentions the Republican Governor of Nebraska who was concerned about the route of the pipeline.
We can't rush to major decisions like this out of political expediency. These decisions have major and lasting consequences. Imagine if the breadbasket of the United States all the sudden had toxic water rushing through it's irrigation systems. What impact could that have nationwide?
Remember The BP Oil Spill?
The 2011 BP Gulf oil spill was the largest U.S. environmental disaster since the dust bowl during the Great Depression.
When the BP spill happened they used massive amounts of chemical dispersant's, that are toxic themselves, to clean up the oil. Seafood was tested for hydrocarbons (oil) but not tested for Corexit and other chemicals used in the cleanup.
The decisions we make today determine the outcomes we face in the future, and president Obama was right to delay the proposed Keystone project.