Why The Keystone Pipeline Oil Spill Is Even Worse Than You Thought

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Last Thursday, one of the country's largest oil pipelines was shut down after 210,000 gallons poured out into South Dakota fields. That alone would be bad enough. Yet, this is not just any oil, but a special kind that comes from Canada's tar sands. For this reason and more, the latest Keystone pipeline oil spill may be even worse than you thought. And on Monday a decision on its successor, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, will be taken by a Nebraska regulator — the last hurdle in its approval process before owner owner TransCanada begins construction.

The five-person commission won't be allowed to take this latest spill into consideration, but the timing is quite the coincidence. The Nebraska Public Service Commission is weighing the concerns of some business groups and unions against those of land owners along the route environmentalists. The latter's argument seems a lot stronger after what has happened with the existing Keystone line.

The Sierra Club released a statement on the matter. "We’ve always said it’s not a question of whether a pipeline will spill, but when, and today TransCanada is making our case for us," Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign director Kelly Martin said. This is not the first time TransCanada’s pipeline has spilled toxic tar sands, and it won’t be the last. The PSC must take note: there is no such thing as a safe tar sands pipeline, and the only way to protect Nebraska communities from more tar sands spills is to say no to Keystone XL."

The South Dakota spill shows why in particular the tar sand pipelines are so problematic. Diluted bitumen, or tar sands oil, is a really thick type of oil, so it's hard to detect when there's a leak. TransCanada is painting a benign picture of the situation, noting that they "detected a pressure drop in our operating system" and had isolated the section near Amherst, South Dakota, within 15 minutes, preventing the spill from continuing.

But the amount of oil leaked is hard to estimate with this kind of thick oil. Kent Moeckly, a Dakota Rural Action Group member and local landowner, told VICE News that the amount could be much higher because of the way computers work. Also, it's such a heavy oil that it sinks into the ground, making confirmation of the size of the spill difficult, he said. "TransCanada thought it was 200,000 gallons. What we found out working with TransCanada, it could very well be 600,000 gallons," Moeckly told VICE News. Bustle has reached out to TransCanada for comment.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine wrote a study on spills of diluted bitumen. It explains that the current process for response to an oil spill considers that the oil will float and "not residues that mix throughout in the water column, aggregate with particles, and sink to the bottom of aquatic environments." In other words, it sinks. "As a result, the pipeline operators and the agencies responsible for spill planning and response may not be adequately prepared for diluted bitumen spills and may lack the tools for effective cleanup," the study reads.

The key concern that Moeckly noted was about risk to the water supply. He said it's close to a drainage ditch that's a small tributary to river that provides some of South Dakota's drinking water. Meanwhile TransCanada has noted in its FAQs on the situation that the pipeline "does not cross any bodies of water at this location." The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources also released a statement that the spill did not occur near a source of drinking water.

But the Keystone XL pipeline that will be considered today would pass over the Ogallala aquifer, which provides drinking water to millions in the Great Plains and allows for agricultural irrigation to the area's farms. That will likely be a consideration as the Nebraska board makes its final decision Monday. Any spill of this type of oil could easily seep down into the aquifer, given the diluted bitumen's thick qualities.

That's something vital to consider when looking at this current spill and considering new pipelines.