Last week the Keystone pipeline spilled 5,000 barrels of oil. This week Nebraska decided to allow the Keystone XL extension to be built right through the state

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Nebraska has given the okay for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to run through the state – even though the existing Keystone pipeline spilled thousands of barrels of oil just last week.

On Thursday morning, the Keystone pipeline sprang a leak near Amherst, South Dakota. It spilled 5,000 barrels of oil – nearly 800,000 litres – that leeched through the ground to the surface.

Despite local concerns, the spill doesn’t seem to have affected the region’s aquifers or surface water. “There may be some shallow ground water present at the site, but it is not part of a mapped aquifer system,” says Brian Walsh at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Clean-up efforts are focused on disposing of contaminated soil.

The Keystone pipeline is owned by TransCanada, an energy company based in Calgary. It transports oil from western Canada’s tar sands region to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, where the oil is refined and processed into usable gasoline and diesel. Tar sands produce some of the lowest grade oil in the world: it is so thick and goopy, it has to be diluted to move through pipelines.

The South Dakota spill came just days before a key decision on a proposed extension to the pipeline, Keystone XL. But while it might have been expected to cause some hesitation, it did not. Yesterday the Nebraska Public Service Commission decided to approve a route for the $8 billion pipeline through their state.

While a win for TransCanada, the decision came with a caveat. It shifted the proposed route to the east – away from Nebraska’s Sandhills region, which rests atop the region’s huge Ogallala aquifer. That will be costly for TransCanada, as it must now make deals with new landowners.

“Just because the project is approved doesn’t make it a done deal,” says Dinara Millington at the Canadian Energy Research Institute in Calgary. Canada previously approved the proposed Energy East and Northern Gateway pipelines, only for them to be scrapped.

It’s ironic that so much political effort is going into ensuring Keystone XL gets built, when even the oil industry is pulling out of tar sands, says Michael Lazarus at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle. Even TransCanada is not entirely clear if it’s going to move forward with the project, he says. “Companies like Shell and Statoil are divesting their assets from that region because they understand, as the international community gets more serious about climate change, the future for high carbon energy sources looks a lot bleaker.”

A 2014 report co-authored by Lazarus found Keystone XL would boost global emissions of carbon dioxide by up to 110 million tonnes per year. That is because the pipeline could enable crude oil to get to the market that otherwise might not, by cutting the cost of transporting it, says Lazarus.

 

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