Five Things To Know About The Keystone Pipeline Leak In Kansas.

Originally published on on December 13, 2022

The Kansas spill, though relatively small, might encourage oil and gas people and environmental proponents to stop talking and listen to the other side – to seek what’s unifying rather than what’s polarizing.

The Keystone pipeline sprang a new leak.

The oil flow was stopped on Wednesday, December 7 just seven minutes after a leak was discovered. The leak spilled 14,000 barrels (or nearly 600,000 gallons). This is a minor leak when compared with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 260,000 barrels or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 5,000,000 barrels.

The leak occurred in Washington County, about 200 miles northwest of Kansas City. It’s a rural area of over 5,000 people that raise wheat, corn, and cattle.

Normally the oil is flowing in the Keystone pipeline at 622,000 barrels per day in a 36-inch pipe. If you thought the Keystone pipeline was canceled by President Biden in 2020, that was just the expansion plan, called Keystone XL, for the present pipeline which has been operating since 2010.

The original Keystone pipeline carried Canadian oil to Midwest refineries and further south to the US Gulf Coast. It’s a 2,600-mile pipeline since it started operating in 2010. TC Energy was the owner.

The owner tried for 14 years to get Keystone XL permitted. While waiting for this to happen, permits were granted in 2017 to increase oil flow rates by increasing pressure in the pipeline, a unique situation in US pipelines.

Three oil spills occurred in Keystone after this permit was approved, each of several thousand barrels of oil. One in North Dakota, one in South Dakota, and the third – the largest spill — in Kansas. What’s wrong with this picture?

Oil flowing from the pipeline leak into Mill Creek. Source: EPA
Oil flowing from the pipeline leak into Mill Creek. Source: EPA

What is being done?

The operator of the pipeline, TC Energy, had over 100 employees on the ground in conjunction with EPA regulators and other environmental specialists for oversight monitoring.

Oil from the leak apparently sprayed upwards onto a hillside and flowed downwards into a small creek called Mill Creek. Workers emplaced booms to contain further oil movement. They were also vacuuming oil from the creek into trucks.

None of the local population has been evacuated, nor has the water supply been threatened in any way.

But there is concern about the downtime because oil transport to the coast and to Cushing, Oklahoma, which is a multi-tank hub for US storage and delivery has been partially interrupted. The minimum storage level of 20 million barrels may be reached if the output from Kansas is down for more than 10 days.

Refiners, who usually hold 10 days of extra crude supply in hand, may be forced to cut back their operations by Christmas.

The Keystone pipeline is controversial.

The proposed Keystone XL expansion has long been an issue between the oil and gas industry and environmental opponents. The oil and gas side is concerned about energy security (fossil energy provides 83% of global consumption) and of course, continued jobs and profits for the industry.

The environmental side is concerned about oil spill disasters, and potential climate disasters caused by greenhouse emissions which are mostly (73%) due to the burning of fossil energies.

Native American tribes have protested the Keystone XL pipeline because it threatens their lands, either physically by oil leaks or spiritually when pipelines cross sacred sites.

Environmental security.  

One observer said the Kansas leak, and the two other oil leaks since 2017, vindicate President Biden’s decision to cancel Keystone XL in 2020. This is one perspective that focuses on accidents and oil spills. 

The oil and gas industry has had its share of these, as mentioned before. The king of oil spills was the Deepwater Horizon blowup in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 when 11 crewmembers died. BP who was leasing the drilling rig and working the well apparently didn’t check the well was properly cemented against gas and oil escape. Altogether, it cost BP $56 billion in fines and reparations for the ensuing damages.

One wonders whether such enormous damages could ever occur when using renewable energy systems. It’s hard to see this happening using wind and solar, even offshore wind power because the energy produced doesn’t reside in a liquid or a gas that can disperse widely.

But batteries can fail, burn or explode due to thermal runaway. Grid-scale battery failures are not negligible: most have occurred in the last four years when battery growth has been exponential. One fire caused life-threatening injuries to first responders. Overall, these accidents in lithium-ion storage systems amount to a failure rate of 1-2%.

One might expect that liquid hydrogen energy systems could explode because like LNG, hydrogen is difficult and risky to compress and transport. But the scale of future hydrogen energy consumption will be less than 10% in 2050, globally, and is much lower than oil and gas consumption which is likely to be around 40% by then.

Nuclear fission energy is a higher-risk branch of renewable resource, as publicized by the disasters in Chornobyl, Russia, in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Even in the US, where no major accidents have occurred, people don’t respond warmly to burying nuclear waste in their state’s backyard.

Energy security.

One pipeliner commented on the Kansas spill with a different focus. Words were used like accidents happen… pipelines leak… spills occur — it’s not a big deal because the world needs oil and gas, so fix it and move on.

Statements like this focus on energy security, which is a topic highly relevant in places like Ukraine and larger Europe this winter.

It’s true the world will need oil and gas for a very long time. Estimates of 36-46% of global energy are predicted by credible companies like BP and DNV.

Despite this, the world is transitioning to renewable energies, largely because countries and industries are gradually accepting that fossil energies are “dirty” and responsible for 73% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The state of Kansas itself is ahead of the curve as it’s ranked number 4 of US states in energy production from onshore wind turbines in 2020. Kansas was second-highest at 43% in wind’s share of the state’s electrical generation.

On a broader scale, the US congress passed new legislation in August 2022 – the Inflation Reduction Act – which plans to catch up to Europe in reducing carbon emissions.

The X-factor in all this is climate security – how will the earth respond to the global temperature that has been warming at an accelerated pace? Many predictions are dire, prophesying disasters brought on by extreme weather conditions supposedly triggered by rising temperatures.

But the data on extreme weather events over the past 40-50 years does not reveal a worsening of droughts, wildfires, super-rainstorms, and hurricanes. If these events haven’t worsened when the global temperature has risen 0.8F over the last 40-50 years, why should they worsen over the next 0.8F rise in temperature?

Steven Koonin in his book Unsettled explains why the UN and its IPCC bodies have been misleading in presentations about this, and the urgency to reduce carbon emissions is not as serious as portrayed by IPCC reports.


Accidents are not unique to oil and gas operations. Grid-scale batteries suffer accidents but so far, there have been no events on the scale of oil spills, because oil is the energy it moves and spills and contaminates.

Nuclear accidents certainly have occurred on the scale of oil and gas accidents.

The world needs energy security, but at what cost? Environmental disasters due to the oil and gas industry are a reality and have had an enormous impact on nature and populations that depend on the environment.

Climate disasters have been connected to global warming, but data from the past 40-50 years have not born this out, and such predictions, though quite common, have been overrated.

What would be beneficial is a balanced view of two different perspectives on the transition from fossil energies to renewables. Balanced views are rare because people feel threatened by the other side. Some of the threats of energy insecurity and climate insecurity are valid – but not all of them.

Perhaps the Kansas spill, though a relatively small incident, may encourage more people to stop talking for a moment and listen to the other side – to seek unification rather than polarization.

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