TOPEKA, Kan. — An oil spill in a creek in northeastern Kansas this week is the largest for an onshore crude pipeline in more than nine years and by far the biggest in the history of the Keystone pipeline, according to federal data.
Canada-based TC Energy on Thursday estimated the spill on the Keystone system at about 14,000 barrels and said the affected pipeline segment had been “isolated” and the oil contained at the site with booms, or barriers. It did not say how the spill occurred.
After a drop in pressure on the pipeline that carries oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, the company said it shut down its Keystone system Wednesday night. Oil spilled into a creek in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City.
Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas, noted the spill in his state was larger than all of the 22 previous spills combined on the Keystone pipeline, which began operations in 2010.
“This is going to be months, maybe even years before we get the full handle on this disaster and know the extent of the damage and get it all cleaned up,” he said.
In September 2013, a Tesoro Corp. pipeline in North Dakota ruptured and spilled 20,600 barrels, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. The company, which worked to recover oil for years but only recovered a fraction of the spill, said that a lightning strike may have caused that break.
A more expensive spill happened in July 2010, when an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Michigan ruptured and spilled more than 20,000 barrels into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Hundreds of homes and businesses were evacuated and federal regulators later ordered Enbridge to dredge the contaminated sediment from the river.
The Keystone pipeline’s previous largest spill came in 2017, when more than 6,500 barrels were spilled near Amherst, South Dakota, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last year. The second largest happened in 2019 near Edinburg, North Dakota, when it leaked 4,515 barrels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said there were no known effects yet on drinking water wells or the public in connection with this week’s spill, and the oil didn’t move from the creek to larger waterways. No evacuations were ordered because the break occurred in rural pastureland, according to Randy Hubbard, the Washington County Emergency Management coordinator.
TC Energy said it had set up environmental monitoring at the site, including around-the-clock air quality monitoring.
“Our primary focus right now is the health and safety of onsite staff and personnel, the surrounding community, and mitigating risk to the environment,” a company statement said.
Junior Roop, the sexton of a cemetery near the spill site, said people could smell the oil in town.
“It was about like driving by a refinery,” he said.
Concerns that spills could pollute waterways spurred opposition to plans by TC Energy to build another crude oil pipeline in the Keystone system, the 1,200-mile (1,900-kilometer) Keystone XL, which would have cut across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Critics also argued that using crude from western Canada’s oil sands would worsen climate change, and President Joe Biden’s cancelation of a U.S. permit for the project led the company to pull the plug last year.
A U.S. Energy Information Administration spokesperson said the Keystone pipeline moves about 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to Cushing, Oklahoma, where it can connect to another pipeline to the Gulf Coast. That’s compared to the total of 3.5 million to 4 million barrels of Canadian oil imported into the U.S. every day.
The spill caused a brief surge in crude prices Thursday. Benchmark U.S. oil was up more modestly — about 1% — on Friday morning as fears of a supply disruption were overshadowed by bigger concerns about an economic downturn in the U.S. and other major countries that would reduce demand for oil.
Tom Kloza, an analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, said that oil is now perceived as plentiful, “and this mishap will not have any appreciable impact on gasoline or diesel prices.” Prices at the pump will continue to drop a few cents a day, or even more, and that between Canadian imports and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the U.S. has enough crude to last more than three years at current demand, he said.
Patrick De Haan, an analyst for GasBuddy, which operates a price-tracking app, said there is pressure to repair the pipeline quickly and keep refineries supplied, adding that “if it lasts more than a few days, that could spell trouble,” for prices at the pump.
Past Keystone spills have led to outages that lasted about two weeks, but this outage could possibly be longer because it involves a body of water, said analysts at RBC Capital Markets in a note to investors. Depending on the spill’s location, it’s possible that a portion of the pipeline could restart sooner, they said.
The spill was 5 miles (8 kilometers) northeast of Washington, the county seat of about 1,100 residents. Paul Stewart, an area farmer, said part of it was contained on his land using yellow booms and a dam of dirt. The spill occurred in Mill Creek, which flows into the Little Blue River.
The Little Blue feeds the Big Blue River, which flows into Tuttle Creek Lake, north of Manhattan, home of Kansas State University. The EPA said the oil did not affect the Little Blue.
Chris Pannbacker said the pipeline runs through her family’s farm. She and her husband drove north of their farmhouse and across a bridge over Mill Creek.
“We looked at it from both sides, and it was black on both sides,” said Pannbacker, a reporter for the Marysville Advocate newspaper.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas and Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa. David Koenig contributed reporting from Dallas.
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