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Are Dakota Access And Keystone XL Really That ‘Dangerous’?


“show me a pipe and I will show you a leak” …. Common Sense

It’s no secret that the Keystone XL (KXL) and Dakota Access Pipelines were resurrected last week from the trash heap of controversial O&G projects. Trump fulfilled his campaign promise and signed executive orders to move these projects forward by renegotiating the terms of the programs.

It’s fair to say, neither project is necessarily a pipedream or nightmare and possibly even beneficial from a short-term job creation and infrastructure perspective. Yet, there remains a myriad of unanswered questions with regards to the needs, safety and environmental impact of these projects.

The first question relates to priorities. What improvements to the underpinnings of US’s vast infrastructure of structures and facilities that effectively operate our society are imminently needed - roads, bridges, power plants, drinking water, schools, public parks & recreation, transit, rail, ports, inland waterways, aviation, wastewater, solid waste, levees, and hazardous waste?

The answer to next questions of benefit and impact on the environment depends on how you look at it. The story of fossil vs clean energy has been discussed ad nauseum and debating it in this posting is counterproductive. Let it be said that one day, society will find it economically beneficial to transition a vast proportion of their energy mix to resources that generate less CO2 and are less harmful to the environment.

In Pick Your Poison for Crude -- Pipeline, Rail, Truck or Boat, James Conca states “Crude oil is a harmful chemical, very destructive when it spills into the environment, and very toxic when it contacts humans or animals. It’s not even useful for energy, or anything else, until it’s refined into useable products.”

Furthermore, tar sands oil is thicker, more acidic and more corrosive than conventional crude. When transported under high pressure, it poses a far greater risk of leaks along the pipeline route. In actual practice, tar sands oil is diluted with natural gas condensate or light hydrocarbons to meet pipeline product quality specifications, which allows the crude oil to flow through the pipeline. Though transportation of diluted tar sands oils is purported to pose no increased risk to the pipeline infrastructure or the environment, ThinkProgress reports “oil leaks from keystone pipeline is 89 times worse than originally thought.”

Conca goes on to say “the safest way to move crude oil “depends upon what your definition is for worse. Is it death and destruction? Is it amount of oil released? Is it land area or water volume contaminated? Is it habitat destroyed? Is it CO2 emitted?

In this context, he poeticizes: "truck worse than train, worse than pipeline, worse than boat. But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the normalized amount of oil spilled, it’s truck worse than pipeline, worse than rail, worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Different yet again is for environmental impact (dominated by impact to aquatic habitat), where it’s boat worse than pipeline, worse than truck, worse than rail.” Related: Refiners Stand To Lose From Trump’s Border Tax Plan

KXL, an $8 billion privately funded 36-inch-diameter pipeline designed to transport up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil, is the fourth phase of the Keystone pipeline system and includes the addition of a 1,179-mile oil conduit from Alberta in West Canada to Nebraska. KXL’s primary purpose is to divert Canadian, not US, tar sands oil from refineries in the Midwest to the Gulf Coast in order to make the oil available for export.

With the exception of Baker, Montana where domestic-produced light crude oil from Bakken formation is produced, KXL replicates the other operational phases of the Keystone System. It just shortens the run and adds larger diameter pipe, thus increasing the flow of oil from Canada, Figure 1.

In terms of environmental impact, PSR reported: “Transported under high pressure, Canadian tar sands oil poses a far greater risk of leaks along the pipeline route. Tar sands oil pipelines are already leaking and causing serious contamination. Over the past five years, pipelines in Midwestern states with the longest history of moving Canadian Oil Sands have spilled three times as much crude per pipeline mile as the national average. The Keystone (Phase) I tar sands pipeline was predicted to spill 1.4 times per decade, yet it spilled fourteen times in its first year of operation. In 2010, an older pipeline system spilled more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, causing health effects in a majority of Calhoun County residents living adjacent to the river. At a cost of over $725 million, this spill was the most expensive U.S. pipeline accident on record.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.78 billion privately funded project, is about 90% completed, and therefore, presents a different set of circumstances. However, the pipeline has also been contentious regarding its need, and impact on the environment and Native American territory, Figure 2.

According to Dakota Access Pipeline Facts “This project crosses almost entirely private land, often already in use for other utility easements. The Dakota Access Pipeline does not cross the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, even at the portion of the pipeline that is the subject of dispute at Lake Oahe. In developing the route, the United States Army Corps of Engineers alone held 389 meetings with 55 tribes regarding the Dakota Access project. In addition, the U.S. Army Corps reached out to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe nearly a dozen times to discuss archaeological and other surveys conducted before finalizing the Dakota Access route.”

Pipeline Facts further states “It (the pipeline) will be among the safest, most technologically advanced pipelines in the world.” This seems to contrast Trump’s statement after signing the executive order “….. we will build our own pipelines, like we used to in the old days.” When amalgamated with a truncated approval process, building pipelines the old way opens the door to significant safety and environmental problems. Does this mean construction crews can revert to 1871 standards and use wrought iron rather than steel pipe and reduce integrity testing of new and operating pipelines? Related: Fundamentals Be Damned – Oil Price Correction Likely


According to the Center for Effective Government, from 2010 to mid-2015, over 3,300 incidents of crude oil and liquefied natural gas leaks or ruptures have occurred on U.S. pipelines. These incidents have killed 80 people, injured 389 more, and cost $2.8 billion in damages. They also released toxic, polluting chemicals in local soil, waterways, and air.

On the other hand, Pipeline 101 reports “Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country. A barrel of crude oil or petroleum product shipped by pipeline reaches its destination safely more than 99.999% of the time. The number of releases greater than 500 barrels is down 32% since 2011. In addition, most incidents do not impact the public or the environment, with 71% of incidents in 2015 occurring and contained wholly within an operator's facility.”

In closing, one apparent failure of the Obama administration was allocating only 3 percent of the $787 billion economic recovery plan towards improving America’s aging roads and bridges. In this respect, Trump has the right idea, just the wrong application. Another questionable change introduced by Trump is expediting the permitting process by slashing environmental regulations. It’s generally known that the permitting process on the federal and even state levels sufficiently impedes if not kills projects by driving up time and cost. Whether this degree of scrutiny is necessary is highly debatable. When future generations and our planet are at stake, we need bold leadership and a compelling vision at the national level not knee jerk reactions and false perceptions that benefit only a few.

By Barry Stevens for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Barney Stephenson on February 01 2017 said:
    A modern high tech society makes many compromises when attempting to keep the supermarkets full, the hospitals running, the traffic control system functioning, reliable electrical power available at affordable cost, and the wheels of commerce rolling.

    The Center for Effective Government and other Soros-esque activist groups only care about power to affect policy according to narrow ideological interests. No one trusts such groups to report accurately, just as few will trust an author who makes his political biases clear in so many ways.

    It is good of oil price.com to provide a wide range of points of view. One can learn from many sources, even if none are actually quite credible.

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