The timing couldn’t have been worse. Four days before Nebraska regulators were to vote on a route through the state for the Keystone XL oil pipeline the company reported an oil spill in South Dakota.
The 210,000-gallon spill was on farmland in Marshall County, near the North Dakota border. Officials don’t believe the spill polluted any surface water bodies or drinking water systems.
On Monday, the Nebraska Public Service Commission voted 3-2 to approve a route for the pipeline. The commission wasn’t allowed to consider the spill in its decision. The route approved by the commission wasn’t the one preferred by TransCanada Corp, the company that owns Keystone. The route is 5 miles longer than the one TransCanada wanted and will require an additional pumping station.
It’s been a long battle for TransCanada and the fight isn’t over.
The project was proposed in 2008 and has been opposed by environmental activists, American Indian tribes and some landowners. When completed it will carry oil from Canada through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to meet the existing Keystone pipeline, where it could move as far as the U.S. Gulf Coast. North Dakota officials have been strong supporters of the project along with business groups and some unions. The project has been touted as a way to create jobs and reduce the risk of shipping oil by trains that can derail. President Barack Obama's administration reviewed the project for years before rejecting it in 2015 because of concerns about carbon pollution. President Donald Trump reversed that decision in March.
The future of the pipeline remains uncertain. TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said after the Nebraska ruling that the company would study "how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project." TransCanada plans to announce late this month or early in December whether it will proceed with the pipeline, which would carry an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil a day. TransCanada will review the Nebraska decision and whether it has lined up enough long-term contracts to ship oil. Since the project was launched the price of oil on the world markets has changed the outlook for the pipeline.
The Tribune Editorial Board has supported the Keystone pipeline. We believe that pipelines, while not perfect, are the safest way to move oil compared to railroads and trucks. The safety of pipelines has been an issue with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota attracting international attention. While Dakota Access is operating there are still court challenges that haven’t been decided. The Keystone pipeline also will likely face legal battles in the future. So the oil spill in South Dakota gives opponents another opportunity to argue pipelines aren’t safe.
It’s important that TransCanada and other companies involved with pipelines take all available safety steps. No landowner wants to see his land soaked with oil and no company relishes the job of cleaning it up or the black eye it gives them. We need to move the oil with the utmost care. Economic factors, not court challenges, will likely decide the fate of Keystone. The Keystone and other pipelines can be economic drivers. They also need to live up to their safety promises.