When an oil tanker breaks up or runs aground, the results are usually catastrophic for the environment since all the oil on board is released into the sea. The Exxon Valdez disaster spilled no fewer than 11 million gallons of crude oil off the Alaskan coast, while other maritime accidents have resulted in even greater amounts of pollution.
However, even though the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) claim that their members’ oil pipelines are 99.999% safe, leaks and spills do occasionally occur. As recently as November last year, the Keystone pipeline suffered an incident in South Dakota that caused 210,000 gallons of oil to leak into the soil.
Preventing and Detecting Damage
Both at the time of construction and while operating, pipeline operators go to great lengths to ensure that their pipes are structurally sound and haven’t been damaged somehow. The technology used is usually the very best available. This only makes financial sense: if you want to buy a hair dryer, you’ll usually just choose from the best ones available in your price range and replace it when it breaks.
If pipeline monitoring equipment fails to detect a breach in the pipe, though, the cost of ceasing operations while repairs are made can by itself make a serious dent in the operating company’s pocket. When fines and other costs are added, managers’ responsibility to their shareholders (if not any environmental concerns) force them to take the greatest care possible to avoid any spills from happening in the first place.
In the recent Keystone spill, engineers detected a drop in pressure and shut down the pumps within three minutes. While this may seem like an impressive response time, a great deal of damage could have been done in that short interval. Both federal regulators and TransCanada, the owner of the pipeline, ended up with egg on their faces: the fault apparently occurred due to a construction error made in a section of pipe where TransCanada received a special permit to bend normal safety rules. The company’s initial environmental risk assessment also turned out to be far too optimistic as far as spills are concerned, casting doubt on the integrity of the whole approval process.
Reacting to a Spill
One of the greatest concerns should a pipeline spill occur is to avoid contaminating ground and surface water. A single gallon of crude oil can render many thousands of gallons of water unusable for most purposes. In this regard, it should be noted that the Keystone XL upgrade’s route runs directly across the Ogallala Aquifer, a large and important underground water source.
All the pipeline operators in any given region pool their resources to ensure that their response to an emergency is as fast and comprehensive as possible. OSCAR (Oil Spill Containment And Recovery) units are prepositioned along the length of each pipeline for rapid deployment. Mounted on semi trailers, these include personal protective gear for workers as well as equipment such as absorbent pads and booms that can contain oil slicks on the ground or water.
Where oil does reach a waterway, usual procedures include isolating the spill as much as possible before using pumps to transfer the contaminated fluid to storage tanks, or setting it on fire if this is not possible. When the spill occurs over or under the ground – as is the case with much of Keystone’s route – the only real solution is to physically dig up the affected soil for transport and chemical treatment elsewhere before the pollution can spread further. In some cases, the site of the spill may have to be monitored for some time after the incident, just in case unexpected ecological impacts do occur.