“Landowners’ worst fears came true,” Jane Kleeb, the head of Bold Nebraska, told DeSmog after news broke about the latest Keystone pipeline oil spill. “When you have a pipe running through your farm or ranch-land all you think about is: it could break today.”
On Saturday afternoon that fear was realized by a Hutchinson County, South Dakota land owner. Loern Schulz found oil in surface water near the Keystone pipeline’s right-of-way and reported the spill.
By Sunday, TransCanada had shut down the Keystone Pipeline, which originates in Alberta, Canada and goes to Steele City, Nebraska. But the rest of its U.S. pipeline network is operational.
The Keystone connects to the Cushing Extension pipeline that ends in Cushing, Oklahoma, where it connects to the Keystone XL’s southern route, renamed the Keystone Gulf Coast Pipeline when the project was split into sections. The Gulf Coast line moves product from Cushing to Nederland, Texas, providing TransCanada a route to move Canadian tar sands bitumen to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and export.
Though President Obama rejected the northern Keystone XL route last year, which would have stretched from Alberta to Cushing, TransCanada has transported Canadian tar sands crude via its Keystone pipeline network since early 2014, when the Gulf Coast pipeline started operations.
TransCanada didn’t have a representative at the potential spill site until Sunday. But by Monday, when the media broke the news, TransCanada had blocked off the area, making documenting the contaminated area from the ground impossible.
It was also impossible to photograph the site from the sky, according to Bold Nebraska. Kleeb told DeSmog that FAA forbade the pilot she hired to fly over the site because it closed the airspace until May 8.
“To have the FAA close off airspace for a foreign corporation is a big problem,” Kleeb said. “We want to take our own pictures. With 100 clean-up workers on site, we have a right to be taking our own pictures and finding out our own information.”
If the public isn’t able to take their own pictures of the site, they shouldn’t expect to see any for years, if at all. Any photos that would be made available will come from TransCanada or the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency responsible for regulating interstate pipelines.
TransCanada turns over its findings about pipeline spills, which include photos, to the PHMSA and the agency does not share such information with the public until its investigations are complete, which can take years. And even when the agency’s investigations are finished, it does not automatically release photos when requested.
It took DeSmog over two years to obtain photos from PHMSA of a site in Missouri, where TransCanada had indicated to PHMSA that there may have been a spill in 2012. After TransCanada dug up parts of the pipeline that were almost completely corroded, both TransCanada and PHMSA claimed that no oil was released. But the few photos DeSmog obtained do not conclusively prove whether a spill took place or not.
TransCanada has released a couple of photos taken near the site that they are working on yesterday, but the photos do not show any oil, which the company admitted was visible when its representatives arrived.
Yesterday, some South Dakotans who have fought against the Keystone XL pipeline went as close to the site as they could get. They took pictures from the perimeter that TransCanada set up around the spill. But the way the perimeter was set up makes it impossible to meaningfully document the company’s remediation work.
Evan Vokes, former TransCanada materials engineer-turned-whistleblower, told DeSmog, “If there is an oil spill the probable source of the spill is at the site of a bad weld. And bad welds are inevitable when welding is not done to code.”
TransCanada’s first estimate reported 187 gallons were found.
“It can take a lot of oil to leak before enough of it percolates up to the surface level for someone to notice,” Vokes said.
If there was indeed a spill, Vokes believes it is fair to assume muchmore oil spilled than the initial estimate states. Vokes points out that oil from any leak that happens underground, would have moved wherever the subsurface water moved, making estimating the spill’s size difficult.
“TransCanada’s leak detection equipment can’t pick up a leak until 2 percent of the pressure in a pipeline drops,” Vokes said. “Which is what makes small leaks like this dangerous since they can go undetected for a long time.”
Though TransCanada confirmed its leak detection system didn’t pick up a spill, it would not confirm if the product in the line was diluted bitumen or crude oil, but it is likely that if product spilled in South Dakota it is diluted bitumen, also known as dilbit.
“Dilbit is indeed crude oil,” Mark Cooper, TransCanada’s public affairs officer, wrote DeSmog in an email. But that statement isn’t accurate. “Dilbit is not the same as crude oil,” Vokes told DeSmog. “It is processed crude that has more benzene in it than crude oil.”
Dilbit spills in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas, proved more problematic to clean up than crude oil spills. It took Enbridge four years to complete remedial efforts ordered by federal regulators and in Mayflower, some homeowners had no choice but to relocate. It was thought that some of the homes nearest to the spill would never be safe to live in again.
“A dilbit spill releases far more toxins into the ground and water than a crude oil spill,” Vokes said.
Canadian regulators noted 21 incidents in the Keystone pipeline’s first year in operation. And U.S. regulators identified up to 62 probable deficiencies in TransCanada’s operations of the pipeline, as noted in a letter PHMSA sent to TransCanada last year. PHMSA has fined the company for breaking rules, but has never taken action to stop construction when inspectors caught the company breaking the rules.
“It is possible the Keystone pipeline has other small leaks that have not been identified yet at the site of other bad welds,” Vokes said. “It is impossible to know where they are until someone notices them and by that time the damage could be catastrophic.”
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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