3 Major Spills in 7 Years: Keystone Has Leaked Far More Than TransCanada Estimated
TransCanada's existing Keystone pipeline has already leaked a significant amount of oil three times in less than seven years. That's a much higher rate than the company predicted in its risk assessments provided to regulators, Reuters reported.
Since the 2,147-mile pipeline began operating in 2010, it has gushed 5,000-barrels just this month in Marshall County, South Dakota, and about 400 barrels each in Hutchinson County, South Dakota in 2016 and in Sargent County, North Dakota in 2011.
However, TransCanada's spill risk assessment estimated that the chance of a leak of more than 50 barrels to be “not more than once every seven to 11 years over the entire length of the pipeline in the United States,"
And in South Dakota, where the line has leaked twice, the estimate was for a “spill no more than once every 41 years."
The spill risk analysis was conducted by international risk management company DNV GL, which did not respond to Reuters' request for comment.
TransCanada could lose its permit to operate the Keystone in South Dakota if an investigation into this month's massive leak determines that the pipeline operator violated its license. Conditions include construction standards and environmental requirements.
“They testified that this is going to be a state-of-the-art pipeline," South Dakota Public Utilities Commission member Gary Hanson told Reuters. “We want to know the pipeline is going to operate in a fashion that is safe and reliable. So far it's not going well."
Nebraska regulators approved an alternative route for the Keystone's controversial sister project, the Keystone XL (KXL) Pipeline, just days after the spill in South Dakota.
As it happens, TransCanada's spill risk estimate for the KXL is also very low—2.2 leaks per decade with half of those at volumes of 3 barrels or less. Spills more than 1,000 barrels would occur at a rate of once per century, it estimated.
Meanwhile, cleanup efforts for the Nov. 16 spill are underway. TransCanada announced Friday that it has recovered more than 44,000 gallons of oil so far.
“Air quality monitoring continues regularly without concern and there have been no water issues or suspected risks to water wells. As a safety precaution, TransCanada sampled one residential water well yesterday at a location about 1.5 miles from the site to alleviate any concerns—all test results were normal," the company said.
But in a setback for the pipeline operator, a federal judge on Wednesday allowed a key lawsuit against the KXL's permit to move forward, The Hill reported. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris rejected a request from the Trump administration and KXL developers to throw out the lawsuit.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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