U.S. Pipelines Spill 9,000 Gallons of Dangerous Chemicals a Day
Leading anti-pipeline campaigner Diana Best discusses hearings in Nebraska that may mark Keystone XL’s last stand and a new Greenpeace warning that four proposed Tar Sands oil pipelines threaten water resources
DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. For the past 10 years, pipelines have spilled an average of 9,000 gallons of hazardous liquids every single day in the U.S. alone. This is according to Greenpeace USA. In a recent study, Greenpeace found that over the past decade these spills in the U.S. have led to 20 fatalities, 35 injuries, $2.6 billion in cost and over 800,000 total barrels spilled, that’s 34 million gallons. They also concluded that the Tar Sands oil pipelines are virtually guaranteed to spill.
The release of this report comes at the moment that hearings are taking place in Nebraska, where regulators have yet to approve the expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline. On Thursday, environmental groups, including Greenpeace, and also Bold Nebraska, The Indigenous Environmental Network, and others are set to deliver over 300,000 public comments against the Keystone XL to the Nebraska Public Service Commission. The deadline for public comment is this Friday.
Our next guest is here to discuss the Nebraska Keystone XL hearings and Greenpeace’s important report titled Four Proposed Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Pose A Threat To Water Resources. We’re very pleased to be joined from Denver, Colorado, by Diana Best. She is the Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace USA. Thanks so much for joining us today.
DIANA BEST: Thank you so much for having me.
DHARNA NOOR: First of all, what are the four proposed Tar Sands oil pipelines that your new report says will pose a threat to water resources?
DIANA BEST: Great. Yeah, there’s four proposed Tar Sands pipelines, all starting at the Alberta Tar Sands fields. One of those is Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline that will go out west to the B.C. coast. Another one, of course, is the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is the subject of these hearings this week. The third is the Line 3, Enbridge’s Line 3, which goes through Canada and then cuts through a portion of Northern U.S. territories. Then, the final one is Energy East.
DHARNA NOOR: Why is Greenpeace saying that Tar Sands oil pipelines are guaranteed to spill? What makes them virtually guaranteed to spill?
DIANA BEST: Great. As you mentioned, Greenpeace U.S. released a report very recently, which details the spill record of some of these companies behind the four proposed pipelines that I just mentioned. Those companies have had a terrible track record of spills since 2010, which is detailed in our report. The U.S. crude oil pipeline system, as a whole, has had an average of one significant incident, about a total of 570 barrels release per a year per a 1,000 miles of pipelines over the past 10 years. As I mentioned, they don’t have a great track record.
What is really scary about this right now is that instead of actually seeing a downward trend in the number of spills, this investigation also found that the long-term trend data shows a significant pipeline incidents have actually increased since 2007. Assuming that some of this data holds true, that means that these pipelines, if they are built, are virtually guaranteed to spill.
DHARNA NOOR: Let’s talk a little bit about the hearings currently going on in Nebraska. These hearings may shape up to be the final battle against the expansion of the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. Nebraska regulators have, again, get to approve the pipeline. Talk a little bit about the significance of these hearings and why people are concerned about the expansion of the Keystone.
DIANA BEST: Definitely. I think, one of the best opportunities we have right now to slow pipeline construction down in the U.S. is through these state permitting processes. Pipelines in general need a handful of both federal and state permits. The state permits are really where, I think, we’re seeing a lot of opposition at the pipelines, and a lot of the activism around the pipelines really taking shape.
What’s happening right now in Nebraska is that The Nebraska Public Service Commission has been tasked with essentially having open hearings and taking public comments to review the risks and rewards of this pipeline and whether or not to approve this critical state permit, the last permit that the Keystone XL Pipeline needs to complete its route from Alberta, through Montana, South Dakota and then Nebraska. This is a really critical window for people to share their stories, to talk about the impacts of what this pipeline will mean for their communities, for their property, for their climate. It’s a huge moment right in Nebraska.
We saw on Sunday thousands of people, hundreds of people coming together in Lincoln from Indigenous community leaders, to First Nations and tribes, landowners, climate activists, people from all over the state and all over the region coming together to give Key XL the boot. It was a big, powerful march on Sunday to kick off these hearings. Now, we’re in day three of what will be a five-day all day hearings at the Public Service Commission.
DHARNA NOOR: One of the Keystone XL pipeline actually already runs through Nebraska, right? This last is really contentious because of its proximity to a major underground water aquifer. Why is that important? Does it matter that it’s so close to this water aquifer?
DIANA BEST: Yeah. I think Tar Sands pipelines really pose a threat to a lot of water resources, from where they start in the oil fields of Alberta, all the way throughout. There are countless streams and rivers and aquifers that those pipelines intersect and go over. I think what’s particularly scary about the Keystone XL Pipeline is that it actually crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the biggest freshwater resources that we have. Millions of people rely on it for drinking water and then you start to incorporate some of the indirect ways that people depend on having a clean, fresh water source. For agriculture, for growing crops and food. This is the heartland of our country, where a lot of our food does come from. To think that that water could be contaminated at all by, hopefully not, a disastrous pipeline spill, it certainly starts to increase the stakes of what this pipeline could potentially have for people in that region.
DHARNA NOOR: Some, of course, in the pipeline or oil and natural gas industry, say, spills are just part of the cost of doing business and that they factor in spills and are prepared for those emergencies. What’s your response to this sort of pushback?
DIANA BEST: Yeah, certainly. I think there’s a lot of responses. One, let’s start with the economic. Spills cost money, that’s the bottom line. We’ve discussed in the report, the billions have been associated already with previous spills that have happened. When you start to add up the various high-price tag costs of these pipelines, which include not only the cost of cleaning up spills, the cost of delays, the uncertainty of the permitting process, the reputational risk of these pipelines, the protest risks, all of these risks, we start to really add up the cost quite quickly.
All of this is coming, of course, in a fairly uncertain and unpredictable oil market, when we’re also seeing the cost of renewable energy go down, we’re seeing a boom in post-fossil fuel technology, like electric cars. I think one has to ask, and I’m certain key investors are asking themselves, or should be asking is it worth it? At what point do the risks outweigh the very limited rewards of pushing forward these pipelines?
Each of these companies right now that are proposing these pipelines are looking to finance these pipelines and going to major Wall Street investors and banks. One of our objectives at Greenpeace, and I know a lot of our allies and partner groups are also making similar demands. One of the things that we’re trying to do is go to some of these big investors and some of the groups bankrolling and banks bankrolling these projects and say, “You have to look at what the increased price tag of this is and you should consider just not funding these at all.”
DHARNA NOOR: I have to ask you, what about the talking point, of course, that these pipelines will create jobs?
DIANA BEST: Yeah, I think this is something … We’ve seen president Trump use this as a justification. We’ve seen the industry uses as a justification for pushing these pipelines forward for almost a decade. The reality is there’s been numerous reports, which dispel the myth that this is a long-term job creator. In fact, the permanent job growth from pipelines is under 100 for a pipeline, I think Keystone XL Pipeline. I think you also have to look at where the job market is going and where the long-term trend is right now.
There is a huge boom in the solar and renewable energy industry right now. We know that there are jobs that are going to take us into a fossil-free future, and those jobs are going to be there to last. While there may be a short-term boom in job growth in the region for the construction, in the long-term, is this going to be this sort of economic boom that the industry and Trump and the oil and gas cronies claim it will be? No.
DHARNA NOOR: The recent Greenpeace report says that the decades of spills averaging 9,000 barrels a day have amounted to $2.6 billion in cost. Is that the pipeline or oil companies who are paying those costs? Or are taxpayers also having to foot the bill?
DIANA BEST: That’s a really good question. According to the EPA, by law, companies responsible for the use or transport, storage, disposal of hazardous substances and oil, they’re actually technically liable for the cost. That can include spills, cleanup, damages, you name it. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone and we’ve seen this in the past that some companies refuse to comply. In the past, the EPA, among other places, have had public funds put aside to help deal with some of the cleanup, or damages, just basically getting some of these contaminations in order.
I think what is nerve-wracking about the situation that we’re in, is that the Trump administration is both, pushing forward new pipelines, they are undercutting the regulatory process that we’re in, and they’re de-funding or underfunding some of the EPA regulatory programs that we rely on. A lot of the safety nets that we’ve seen in the past come to play in moments of disaster might not be there and that’s an uncertainty that I think we’re going to have to face. Who ultimately foots the bill for that? Will it be the companies? Will it be local taxpayers? Will it be the federal government? I think that’s an unknown and something that we should be considering very closely.
DHARNA NOOR: When might we know the outcome of the Nebraska hearings and the ultimate fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline?
DIANA BEST: Right. At this point, the Public Service Commission of Nebraska is hearing this testimony, there is cross-examination. The company also has a chance to testify and share their testimony. They’re going to go back, they’re going to review all of that, including the thousands and thousands of public comments that are being delivered on Thursday, the final comment period, of course, closes on Friday. They’re going to review all of that. What we’re hearing right now is that we should expect an up or down final vote on whether or not to approve the Nebraska permit sometime in the late fall, that could be sometime in November.
DHARNA NOOR: How much of the American public is at risk, in terms of their drinking water from oil and gas pipeline spillage? Are there specific at-risk populations?
DIANA BEST: Yeah. I think, the pipeline network across the U.S. has certainly expanded in recent years. I think the risks from a pipeline spill are numerous. From contaminating our water that we depend on to drink, to a fossil fuel leakage and spills of hazardous materials, and of course, the risk to our climate. I think who is at risk? It’s technically all of us. I think when we look at Key pipelines, like the Keystone XL Pipeline that’s currently on the table and being debated of whether or not to approve this, it crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, as I mentioned, a water source that millions of people rely on directly for drinking water, and indirectly countless people rely on for food. A contamination and a key drinking water source like that would be absolutely disastrous.
DHARNA NOOR: Can you talk a little bit more about the long-term effects of these kinds of pipeline spills?
DIANA BEST: Yeah. I think we can look at other places that we’ve seen oil spills. I think Deepwater Horizon is still in everyone’s recent memory. We can also look at Michigan’s Kalamazoo River spill that happened in 2010, when 20,000 plus barrels of oil spilled into that river, what the cleanup costs were. I think it brings a lot more than just direct impacts. Of course, there is water contamination, not being able to drink water, not being sure if your water is safe, to some of the other environmental hazards that happen. Can you appreciate and enjoy the outdoors without fear of contamination? I think there is also just a perception risk. It affects people’s property values. It affects people’s desire to want to spend time in that region. I think there’s a tourism angle here that is also not widely discussed.
DHARNA NOOR: Let’s turn to the owner and the builder of the would be Keystone XL Trans Canada. What’s their track record for spill rates?
DIANA BEST: Yeah. Their track record, like all of these companies, is not great. In our report, we use pipeline incident data maintained by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. That is a mouthful. We looked through that report, and what we found is that Trans Canada was responsible for 13 spills totalling about 829 barrels of crude oil since 2010. They had two significant spills. One in 2011 and one in 2016.
DHARNA NOOR: Greenpeace’s recent study also concluded that we could expect 59 significant spills over the next 50 years. The study said there’s even more to concern when it comes to the Alberta Tar Sands, because of the mining and processing of bitumen. What exactly is bitumen and why does that pose a particular concern for Greenpeace?
DIANA BEST: Sure. Bitumen is a fancy term for Tar Sands oil. Unlike conventional crude oil, bitumen has a consistency of almost like a thick tar. It’s too thick to just pump straight out of the ground and pushed through pipelines. In order to actually get it to flow through the pipelines, which are being considered right now, bitumen must be mixed with light crude oil, or natural gas to give it the consistency that it can actually flow through those pipelines. That’s called diluted bitumen, or dilbit for short.
DHARNA NOOR: Did a Trans Canada’s Pipeline competitors Kinder Morgan or Enbridge and their subsidiaries fare any better in your report in terms of their track records for spills?
DIANA BEST: They actually fared a lot worse, in fact. Kinder Morgan was involved in approximately 213 spills. 35 of those were crude oil and six were highly volatile liquids. 22 of those were actually deemed significant spills by the regulators. Enbridge, as well, had about 147 spills. 17 of those were classified as significant.
DHARNA NOOR: All right. Diana Best, thank you so much for joining us today.
DIANA BEST: Thank you so much for having me, take care.
DHARNA NOOR: Thanks so much for joining us on The Real News. We’ll keep tracking these unfolding developments for the Keystone XL and other pipelines and the environmental health battle against them.