Senators Scrutinize Safety of Proposed Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Line 6B Enbridge Energy
The pipeline that burst during the Enbridge tar sands oil spill in Michigan - July 2010

No study has been done nor regulations developed for tar sands pipelines, and pipeline safety regulators have not been involved in the environmental review for TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This is according to testimony of Ms. Cynthia Quarterman, Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), before Congress during a hearing on pipeline safety last month. We need look no further than Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, which is still being cleaned up a year after an Enbridge pipeline spilled nearly a million gallons of tar sands crude, to know it’s long overdue.

Then today, in the wake of the disastrous 42,000 gallon spill into Montana’s Yellowstone River from ExxonMobile’s Silvertip Pipeline, which may have carried tar sands crude, seven senators raised new safety concerns about Keystone XL. In a letter to Secretary Clinton, they cited the 12 spills from TransCanada’s year-old Keystone tar sands pipeline and asked whether the State Department will work with PHMSA on Keystone XL’s environmental review for before finalizing it. They also asked whether the State Department would address EPA’s concerns about the chemicals that would be mixed with the viscous tar sands crude to make it flow through the pipeline, as well as Nebraskan farmers and ranchers’ concerns that TransCanada chose the worst possible route through Ogallala Aquifer. With all the recent spills putting pipeline safety higher on the list of congressional priorities, the senators’ scrutiny of Keystone XL is timely.

“The existing Keystone pipeline has been in operation for less than one year and has spilled 12 times, including spills of 400 barrels of crude in North Dakota on May 7, and 10 barrels of crude in Kansas on May 29.  The May spills resulted in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issuing a Corrective Action Order to TransCanada, finding that “the continued operation of the pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment.” These spills are troubling, as the Keystone XL pipeline will have similar characteristics, and underscore the need for careful assessment of both the spill risks and route of Keystone XL.”

Oil in Montana's Yellowstone River (NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky)

Among those scrutinizing Keystone XL is Senator Lautenberg, the chair of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over pipeline safety. In May, the full Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee passed his Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 275) that, among other things, calls on PHMSA to conduct a tar sands pipeline safety study. There is now interest in moving this legislation on a fast track to the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering a draft pipeline safety bill, also calling for a tar sands pipeline safety study. This is a step in the right direction. However, the House should abandon consideration of Congressman Terry’s bill to expedite Keystone XL’s permitting process, echo the concerns raised by the senators, and focus on enacting pipeline safety legislation to protect public health and the environment.

Please take a moment right now to ask President Obama to say no to Keystone XL.