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How the Keystone Pipeline Spill Proves Pipelines Are Safe

January 10, 2018

A section of the Keystone Pipeline that was completed in 2011 sprung a leak, spilling approximately 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. What does it mean for safety?

On November 16, 2017, a section of the Keystone Pipeline that was completed in 2011 sprung a leak, spilling approximately 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Despite claims made by pipeline opponents that such incidents prove that pipelines cannot be operated safely—and therefore other pipeline projects such as Enbridge’s proposal to expand Line 3 should be denied—a closer look at the numbers proves pipelines are a safe, effective, and efficient way to transport the energy Americans rely on every day.

Before one can truly appreciate the safety pipelines provide, it is important to have a basic understanding of how many oil spills are reported and how much oil Americans use on a daily basis. Reports of oil spills generally report the quantity of oil spilled in gallons. The reason for this is probably two-fold: (1) Most people can visualize the gallon of milk in their refrigerator, and thus it gives people a frame of reference, and (2) reporting spills in gallons results in larger numbers and thus more “click-worthy” headlines.

While reporting oil spills in gallons may help people conceptualize the size of spills, it is a poor way of giving the public the context necessary to understand the magnitude of an event when compared to daily oil consumption.

Oil is bought and sold in barrels, not gallons. There are 42 gallons in each barrel of oil, which means the November 16, 2017, Keystone leak resulted in about 5,000 barrels of oil spilling from the pipeline. The Keystone XL Pipeline will transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day when completed, meaning the spill accounted for approximately 0.6 percent of the total daily capacity that Keystone will be able to move when finished, and it’s just a tiny fraction of the amount moved in a single month.

More importantly, the flow rate for the section of Keystone that leaked is approximately 410 barrels per minute. At that rate, a spill of 5,000 barrels means the pipeline only leaked oil for approximately 12 minutes before operators noticed the leak and shut down the pipeline. This is quite astounding considering the national average response time for police responding to a 9-11 call is 11 minutes. In many rural communities, it’s much longer. That means pipeline operators can respond to emergencies at least as quickly as emergency responders can.

The ability to quickly identify and rectify oil spills is incredibly important, because according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Americans use approximately 19.7 million barrels of oil per day. This total includes the gasoline used to power our cars, diesel fuel for trucks and tractors, heating oil to keep our homes warm in winter, and jet fuel that helps thousands of American travelers move swiftly across the world each day.

Data provided by the Association of Oil Pipelines (AOP) estimates 9.3 billion barrels of crude oil were transported by pipelines in the United States in 2014, amounting to nearly 25 million barrels per day. (The difference between the number of barrels of oil consumed by Americans and the number transported by pipelines is likely the result of AOP’s figures including both imported and exported oil transported via pipeline.)

With these large numbers, it’s truly amazing that so few spills occur. Additionally, it’s worth noting new pipelines are even safer than old pipelines, because they are equipped with more sophisticated technology that help identify leaks. This means even fewer spills will likely occur in the future.

Although pipeline opponents attempted to promote the story of the spill to push their anti-pipeline agenda, a closer look at the numbers demonstrates the Keystone Pipeline spill and the response by TransCanada, the company that operates the pipeline, were actually an energy success story, not a reckless environmental disaster.

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Isaac Orr is a research fellow for energy and environment policy at The Heartland Institute. Orr is a speaker, researcher, and writer specializing in hydraulic fracturing, frac sand mining, agricultural, and environmental policy issues.