Regulators eased pressure on the pipeline after the Kansas oil spill

US government regulators stopped allowing much of the Keystone pipeline to operate at higher-than-normal pressures after a massive oil spill in northeast Kansas in December.

The order this week from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s pipeline safety arm covers 1,220 miles (1,963 kilometers) of the Keystone pipeline in seven U.S. states. Regulators had already ordered the system’s operator, Canada-based TC Energy, to reduce pressure on a 96-mile (155-kilometer) section of the pipeline from southern Nebraska near the Kansas border to central Kansas, where the leak occurred.

The action by regulators came ahead of the first hearings in the Kansas Legislature on the leak. A TC Energy official is set to face questions from lawmakers Tuesday during a joint session of two House committees.

TC Energy said in a statement Friday that it is already operating within the pressure limits set by this week’s order and will continue to comply.

“Our commitment to the safe operation of our system is unwavering,” the company said.

But Zack Pistora, a Kansas lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said Friday that perhaps regulators should reconsider the operation of the Keystone pipeline “as a whole.” The system has had more than 20 spills since it began operating in 2010, and the one in Kansas was the largest and the largest onshore spill of the US system in nine years, according to regulators.

“There is no confidence that this pipeline will not break again in the near future, even with less pressure,” Pistora said.

The latest order from regulators required TC Energy to reduce peak pressure by 10% on the pipeline from North Dakota’s border with Canada to northern Oklahoma, as well as push the system from southern Nebraska through Missouri to central Illinois. This will bring the maximum pressure in line with what is normally allowed after TC Energy was granted special permission to exceed it six years ago.

A pipeline rupture on Dec. 7 spilled nearly 13,000 barrels — each with enough crude to fill a standard household bathtub — into a creek through rural pastures in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City.

No one was evacuated after the spill, and officials said it did not affect the two largest rivers and the reservoir downstream from the affected creek. With the permission of regulators, the company reopened the affected division a little more than three weeks after the spill.

But in a separate cleanup order on Jan. 6, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the amount of oil spilled was a “harmful amount” that violates the nation’s clean water laws. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the EPA order through a Freedom of Information Act request.

TC Energy must notify the state and EPA Field Coordinator prior to shipping any hazardous materials. The company will also pay the US government’s cleanup costs and faces a fine of nearly $52,000 a day if it violates the EPA order.

A US Government Accountability Office report to Congress in July 2021 noted that pipeline regulators had allowed higher-than-normal peak pressure in the Keystone system starting in 2017. Regulators concluded that operation at higher pressures was safe if TC Energy met more than 50 conditions.

TC Energy said last month that a faulty weld caused a crack that grew over time due to stress on a bend in the pipeline where the rupture occurred. The company has estimated the cleanup will cost $480 million and has an average of 800 people on site in any given 24-hour period.

“We continue to make progress” on the cleanup and investigation of the root cause of the pipeline rupture, the company said in its statement.

The 2,700-mile (4,345 km) Keystone system carries heavy crude oil extracted from tar sands in western Canada to the Gulf Coast and central Illinois.

Concerns that spills could contaminate waterways have fueled opposition to TC Energy’s plans to build another crude oil pipeline in the same system, the 1,200-mile (1,900 km) Keystone XL, across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. President Joe Biden’s revocation of a permit led the company to withdraw the project in 2021.

The order from pipeline regulators this week also requires TC Energy to review the pipeline’s pressure and examine potential problems every month on the 291-mile (468-kilometer) Keystone section from southern Nebraska to northern Oklahoma.

The order said failure to depressurize most of the pipeline and requiring other measures would make pipeline operations “dangerous to life, property or the environment.”


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