“If This Didn’t Have the Name Keystone on It, Nobody Would Really Be Paying Much Attention to It”


The latest news about the Keystone pipeline spill near Edinburg, North Dakota, is that it was much larger than previously estimated.

Which isn’t unusual. Initial estimates about these spills are just that. Initial estimates. They’re almost always revised once cleanup efforts commence and the true scope of the spill comes into focus. In this case, the initial estimate was off by a bit more than usual, but whatever. What matters is that the full scope is identified and cleaned up.

It’s not hard to hear some frustration, though, in what Bill Suess had to say to Forum News Service reporter Hannah Shirley:

“This is a significant spill as far as size goes,” Suess said. “But if this didn’t have the name Keystone on it, nobody would really be paying much attention to it, because we’ve had bigger oil spills from pipelines.”

Suess is the Spill Investigation Program Manager for North Dakota’s Department of Environmental Quality, and he’s not at all wrong. He might get some flak for just coming right out and saying something like that, but he shouldn’t. Because it’s the pure, unvarnhised truth.

The politics of pipelines in America dictate that we all go fainting into the bushes every time a pipeline spills. Especially a pipeline with the name “Keystone” in it. Each incident is supposed to be treated as smoking-gun evidence of the inherent evils of pipelines, specifically, and oil development generally. Proof positive that we ought to stop doing both.

You don’t have to be a tree-hugging environmentalist, or even an anti-pipeline political zealot, to think that oil spills are bad. They are. Beyond the environmental impacts, a spill is a waste of oil, which is a valuable commodity. It’s also a waste of money. Pipelines that leak have to be stopped for a while. Money has to be expended on clean up and remediation at the spill site.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Of the roughly 9,120 barrels of oil spilled starting October 29, roughly 87 percent of it had been cleaned up by November 15, which is the date of the last update from the DEQ.[/mks_pullquote]

Nobody wants that, least of all the pipeline companies. I can say that because a universal truth everyone involved in the debate over oil can agree with is that companies in the oil industry like to make money.

Oil spills are not conducive to making money.

Back to Mr. Suess’ point, is this Keystone leak really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things?

I think the answer, based on a sober review of the facts, is no.

The leaks get sensationalized (starting with the news media’s insistence that leaks, which are officially reported in barrels spilled, be translated into gallons for the sake of bigger numbers) leaving the public with an exaggerated impression of how bad they are. Which is a point The Minuteman Blog made recently in a post: “Even with the affected land being 10 times what it was first reported, that’s still less than five acres— 4.8 to be exact. If all that crude oil was all dumped into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, it would only be 58% full.”

Adding to that point, here’s a number we should be impressed by: Of the roughly 9,120 barrels of oil spilled starting October 29, roughly 87 percent of it had been cleaned up by November 15, which is the date of the last update from the DEQ.

In 17 days, nearly 90 percent of the spilled oil was cleaned up. It won’t be long until all of the oil is cleaned up, and the contaminated soil replaced.

Again, oil spills are not a trivial thing. They’re very bad. But they’re also not the catastrophe some, for explicitly political reasons, would like them to be. That almost all of a significant pipeline spill could be cleaned up roughly two weeks after the spill was detected is a testament to how responsive both the oil industry and state regulators are to these situations.