Ted Cruz and the Zombie Pipeline

Just when you thought the Keystone XL pipeline was dead, it has returned like a zombie, re-energized by Ted Cruz’s surging campaign.

After Cruz’s early April win in North Dakota (and before his win in Wisconsin), The Texas Tribune reported that Cruz had “tailored his stump speech to appeal to the agriculture and energy industries in North Dakota, promising to roll back federal environmental regulations and build the Keystone [XL] Pipeline, which would run through the state.” [1]

The Texas Republican Senator (like the other Republican candidates Donald Trump and John Kasich) has long been a backer of TransCanada Corp’s project to pipe 800,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) from the Alberta tar sands to Texas refineries. In November 2015, the Obama administration cancelled the proposed cross-border pipeline because of environmental concerns.

So convinced is Cruz of the safety and righteousness of Keystone XL that he has even said, “If you’re a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist, you should love the Keystone [XL] pipeline.” [2]

But just days after Cruz’s North Dakota win, TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline (operational since 2010) sprang a leak in South Dakota.

Extraordinary Measures

On Saturday, April 2, South Dakota land owner Loern Schulz found an oil spill near the Keystone 1 pipeline right-of-way near Freeman, S.D. and reported the spill. (The Keystone 1 pipeline carries 590,000 barrels per day of dilbit from Alberta to refineries in Illinois.) As of April 7, TransCanada had not provided a clear estimate of the size of the spill – other than its initial report of 187 gallons – but told CBC News that it was a “very, very small amount”. [3]

Nonetheless, some extraordinary measures seem to have been taken to prevent reporting about the spill.

According to DeSmogBlog, the spill area was blocked off, “making documenting the contaminated area from the ground impossible” for the media and others. Jane Kleeb, the head of Bold Nebraska, told DeSmog that it was also impossible to photograph the spill site from the sky. “Kleeb told DeSmog that FAA [the Federal Aviation Authority] forbade the pilot she hired to fly over the site because it closed the airspace” – a restriction later lifted. “To have the FAA close off airspace for a foreign corporation is a big problem,” Kleeb said. “We want to take our own pictures. With 100 clean-up workers on site, we have a right to be taking our own pictures and finding out our own information.” [4]

The Keystone 1 leak raises doubts about pipeline safety, and does so at a very inconvenient time for the industry, in both the U.S. and Canada.

A Massive Problem

According to InsideClimate News, “Keystone 1 was commissioned in 2010 with a number of advanced leak detection technologies,” which TransCanada has touted every since in its push for projects like Keystone XL and (in Canada) the Energy East pipeline. However, the fact that this latest leak was discovered by a landowner, rather than the company’s own leak detection system, highlights the inadequacies of that system.

As Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart told InsideClimate News, “Just last month hearings began in the province of Quebec on TransCanada’s proposed Energy East Pipeline and TransCanada was making a lot of very big claims about how in near minutes they would detect any leak and be able to shut down the pipeline in event of a spill.” Given that the Keystone 1 pipeline is only about six years old, “it doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in their claims of how good the technology is to detect spills and thus minimize them,” he added. [5]

On April 6, Toronto-based Environmental Defence released a report called “Energy East: A Risk to Our Drinking Water,” which compared the proposed Energy East pipeline to Keystone 1: “TransCanada’s tar sands pipeline Keystone 1, running from Alberta to Illinois, is a very similar oil pipeline involving a converted gas pipeline segment and an add-on new pipeline section. In its first two years of operation, Keystone 1 leaked numerous times. Canadian Transportation Safety Board data reveal that there were 71 leaks on the Canadian portion of the Keystone system between June 2020 and February 2012. After only two years in operation, a section of Keystone 1 pipeline’s wall was found to be 95 per cent corroded, leaving the pipeline paper thin at a location mere feet from the Mississippi River.“

The Environmental Defence report also zeroed in on the built-in inadequacy of TransCanada’s leak detection system: “Even if Energy East’s leak detection system works reliably, there is still a massive problem. A large-scale spill would still be possible as the proposed leak detection system can only detect leaks greater than 1.5 per cent of the pipeline’s capacity. Based on a total capacity of 1.1 million barrels per day [for Energy East], an undetected leak of 1.5 per cent could release up to 16,500 barrels or 2.6 million litres of oil in a single day.” [6]
For Keystone 1, with a capacity of 590,000 bpd, an undetected leak of 1.5 per cent could release more than 8,000 barrels of crude in a single day.

Pipeline consultant Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, Inc., explained to InsideClimate News the “extremely difficult challenge” of having a reliable leak detection system: “Kuprewicz said companies typically rely on a combination of sensors inside pipelines that measure temperature, pressure, flow rates and other hydraulic data as well as external sensors that can detect fluid outside the pipeline. Internal sensors are unlikely to detect small leaks and external sensors are prohibitively expensive to use everywhere along a pipeline’s path, Kuprewicz said.” [7]

In South Dakota last weekend a landowner, rather than Keystone 1’s high-tech system, detected the leak. As Yankton Dakota Sioux tribal Elder Faith Spotted Eagle, who had posted a video about the spill, told Indian Country Today, “Their hotshot computer system did not detect the spill”. [8]

Indeed, a TransCanada spokesman seems to have considered the alert landowner who did detect the spill to be part of the company’s leak detection system.

Expanded System?

Based on reporting by Indian Country Today’s Jacqueline Keeler, The Energy Mix noted: “In the wake of the pipeline spill discovered Saturday along the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota, a TransCanada Corporation spokesperson ended up acknowledging the rancher who discovered the leak as an essential – if unhappy – part of his company’s leak detection system. ‘We don’t know what has happened here, and we don’t know where it is coming from,’ [TransCanada’s] Shawn Howard admitted in a video posted by a third party [Faith Spotted Eagle] on Facebook. But ‘we appreciate [the landowner was] alert and reported this to us quickly.’

“Indian Country Today adds that the pipeline company ‘considered that a success story because it demonstrated that TransCanada’s public awareness programs are working.’ But ‘the rancher was not happy with this assessment,’ Indian Country reports, citing Faith Spotted Eagle, the Yankton Dakota Sioux tribal Elder who posted the video. ‘He said he does not have time to be looking for leaks, that this should not be his job.’ But ‘the TransCanada representative assured the public the company has in place ‘layers to our leak detection system,’ and that alert landowners are only part of the equation, the other being ‘our high-tech oil control centre’.” [9]

In other words, instead of buying the “prohibitively expensive” external sensors mentioned by Kuprewicz to detect leaks, TransCanada Corp. seems to be depending on the unpaid labor of land owners being alert and vigilant along pipeline paths – a corporate strategy that appears to fit nicely with Ted Cruz’s preference for “voluntary conservation” and unfettered free market capitalism.

Grand Oil Party

According to Bloomberg, as of December 2015 Cruz was leading all presidential candidates by a wide majority in terms of financial contributions from employees of oil and natural gas companies, while contributions from the oil industry to Cruz have been rising steadily, even before Jeb Bush dropped out of the race. Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, told Bloomberg in February, “If you line up the priorities of the hydrocarbons industry, they fit almost perfectly with Cruz’s positions.” [10]

Cruz is a climate-change denier who believes in opening up all lands to energy drilling and scraping regulations on oil and gas development. He is a long-time recipient of praise and support from the billionaire Koch brothers and their network. [11] Koch Industries is heavily invested in the Alberta tar sands and, according to critics, stands to earn billions more if Keystone XL is built. [12]

In May of last year, even as oil prices were tanking, Mike Casey of NextGen Climate told Canada’s National Observer, “The Koch brothers are very interested in the Keystone XL pipeline going through…They’ll tell you that they’re not, but the reality is that they understand that it’s a key piece of enabling infrastructure for tar sands development.” He added, “They’re not holding 1.1 million acres of tar sands for conservation purposes.” [13]

For months there have been reports that the Koch brothers have anywhere from $400 million to $800 million in a political arsenal for targeted use in the 2016 election cycle. But in March, James Davis – a spokesman for the Koch brothers’ political umbrella group Freedom Partners – told Reuters, “We have no plans to get involved in the [presidential] primary.” [14]
That’s probably because there’s no need: things appear to be unfolding pretty much the way the Koch brothers want.

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[1] Patrick Svitek, “Ted Cruz Claims Victory after North Dakota Delegates Selected,” The Texas Tribune, April 2, 2016.

[2] Karen Ridder, “How Did Texas Senators Vote in Narrow Defeat of Keystone XL Pipeline?” Newsmax.com, October 9, 2015.

[3] Kyle Bakx, “Keystone pipeline could restart next week after leak,” CBC News, April 7, 2016.

[4] Julie Dermansky, “Keystone Pipeline Mishap Has TransCanada Scrambling Again,” DeSmogBlog, April 6, 2016.

[5] Phil McKenna, “Keystone 1 Leak Raises More Doubts About Pipeline Safety,” Inside Climate News, April 6, 2016.

[6] Environmental Defence, “Energy East: Risk to Our Drinking Water,” April 6, 2016.

[7] McKenna, op cit.

[8] Jacqueline Keeler, “TransCanada’s ‘Hotshot Computer System’ Misses Keystone Spill,” Indian Country Today, April 6, 2016; reported on The Energy Mix, April 6, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alex Nussbaum, “Surging Cruz Is Big Oil’s New Crush as Donors Cool to Bush,” Bloomberg.com, February 17, 2016.

[11] Nick Surgey, “Ted Cruz at Secret Koch-Backed Fracking Lobby Group Meeting,” PR Watch, July 13, 2015.

[12] International Forum on Globalization, “Billionaires’ Carbon Bomb: The Koch Brothers and the Keystone XL Pipeline,” October 2013.

[13] Bruce Livesey, “How Canada made the Koch brothers rich,” National Observer, May 5, 2015.

[14] Michelle Conlin, “Exclusive: Koch brothers will not use funds to try to block Trump nomination,” Reuters, March 3, 2016.

Joyce Nelson’s sixth book, Beyond Banksters: Resisting the New Feudalism, can be ordered at: http://watershedsentinel.ca/banksters. She can be reached through www.joycenelson.ca.