Keystone I - North Dakota Suncor - Commerce City, CO

Are tar sands oil pipelines safe?  Do they ever leak?

Tar sands oil pipelines are definitely NOT safe, they spill all the time!    

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) is the primary federal regulatory agency responsible for energy pipeline safety in the U.S.  This agency maintains records and statistics for pipeline incidents in the U.S.  According to PHMSA records, there have been 10,273 reported incidents between 1992 and 2011.  These incidents include 384 fatalities, 1,568 injuries, $5,354,942,041 in property damage, and 2,529,868 barrels of spilled hazardous liquid (including crude oil).  In 2011 alone, there were 600 incidents resulting in 151,173 barrels of spilled hazardous liquid.

In fact, the Keystone I pipeline had a whopping 14 spills in just a 12-month period.  Because Keystone I is owned by the same company that wants to build Keystone XL, and because Keystone I carries the same product that Keystone XL would carry, a look at Keystone I provides a good indication of what to expect from Keystone XL.  

Facts about the Keystone I Pipeline:

Keystone XL Pipeline’s Spill Potential:

Keystone XL Project


Spills could result from many causes, including
corrosion (external or internal), excavation equipment,
defects in materials or in construction, overpressuring
the pipeline, and geologic hazards, such
as ground movement, washouts, and flooding.
Although the leak detection system would be in place,
some leaks might not be detected by the system. For
example, a pinhole leak could be undetected for days
or a few weeks if the release volume rate were small
and in a remote area.

In most cases the oil from a small leak would likely
remain within or near the pipeline trench where it
could be contained and cleaned up after discovery.
As a result, for most small leaks it is likely that the oil
would be detected before a substantial volume of oil
reaches the surface and affects the environment.
Spills may be identified during regular pipeline aerial
inspections, by ground patrols and maintenance staff,
or by landowners or passersby in the vicinity of the

For larger spills, the released oil would likely migrate
from the release site. However, DOS analysis of
previous large pipeline oil spills suggests that the
depth and distance that the oil would migrate would
likely be limited unless it reaches an active river,
stream, a steeply sloped area, or another migration
pathway such as a drainage ditch.

Estimated Frequency of Spills

In spite of the safety measures included in the design,
construction, and operation of the proposed Project,
spills are likely to occur during operation over the
lifetime of the proposed Project. Crude oil could be
released from the pipeline, pump stations, or valve

Although a large spill could occur at the proposed
Cushing tank farm, each of the three 350,000-barrel
tanks would be surrounded by a secondary
containment berm that would hold 110 percent of the
contents of the tank plus freeboard for precipitation.
Therefore, there would have to be a concurrent failure
of the secondary containment berm for a tank-farm
spill to reach the area outside of the tank. Such an
event is considered unlikely.

DOS calculated estimates of spill frequency and spill
volumes. Those estimates included potential spills
from the pipeline, pump stations, and valve stations.
The calculations used data from the PHMSA spill
incident database for hazardous liquid pipelines and
crude oil pipelines, and from the National Response

Executive Summary − Final EIS

Center (NRC) database for releases and spills of
hazardous substances and oil.

Based on those data, DOS calculated that there could
be from 1.18 to 1.83 spills greater than 2,100 gallons
per year for the entire Project. The estimated
frequency of spills of any size ranged from 1.78 to
2.51 spills per year.

Keystone submitted a risk analysis that also included
an estimate of the frequency of spills over the life of
the proposed Project. Keystone’s analysis was for
the pipeline only and did not include releases from
pump stations, valve stations, or the tank farm.

Keystone initially calculated a spill frequency of 1.38
spills per year based only on the historical PHMSA
spill incident database available in 2008 when the
application was submitted. Keystone also calculated
a Project-specific spill frequency for the pipeline that
considered the specific terrain and environmental
conditions along the proposed Project corridor,
required regulatory controls, depth of cover, strength
of materials, and technological advances in the
design of the proposed Project. Using those factors,
Keystone estimated that there could be 0.22 spills per
year from the pipeline.

Spills from the Existing Keystone Oil Pipeline

The existing Keystone Oil Pipeline System has
experienced 14 spills since it began operation in June
2010. The spills occurred at fittings and seals at
pump or valve stations and did not involve the actual
pipeline. Twelve of the spills remained entirely within
the confines of the pump and valve stations. Of
those spills, 7 were 10 gallons or less, 4 were 100
gallons or less, 2 were between 400 and 500 gallons,
and 1 was 21,000 gallons.

The spill of 21,000 gallons occurred when a fitting
failed at the Ludden, North Dakota pump station. As
a result, PHMSA issued a Corrective Action Order,
halting pipeline operation. Keystone was required to
consult with PHMSA before returning the pipeline to
operation. In that incident, most of the oil was
contained within the pump station, but 210 gallons
discharged from the pump station to adjacent land.
The land affected was treated in place in compliance
with North Dakota Department of Health land
treatment guidelines.

Keystone XL Project

Maximum Spill Volume

Keystone conducted an assessment of the maximum
potential pipeline spill volume from a complete
pipeline structural failure. Keystone estimated that
the maximum spill volume would be approximately
2.8 million gallons, which would be possible along
less than 1.7 miles of the proposed pipeline route due
to topographic conditions. For approximately 50
percent of the proposed pipeline route (approximately
842 miles), the maximum spill volume would be
approximately 672,000 gallons.

Executive Summary − Final EIS

From the FEIS: