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Booms placed along the Yellowstone River to capture spilled oil. (Photo Credit: USFWS/David Rouse/Flickr)

Yellowstone Spill Shadows Efforts on Keystone XL

Cleanup and assessment efforts continue in Montana after a July 1 pipeline rupture that sent crude oil gushing into the Yellowstone River. On Tuesday, Montana’s environmental agency said that oil was found on 60 percent of the inspected shoreline. The state also said that the spill released 1,200 barrels into the river, up from Silvertip pipeline operator ExxonMobil’s estimate of 1,000 barrels. The company has completed initial cleanup work on four of the 25 identified spill sites, according to the EPA.

The effects of the rupture are trickling beyond the spill region: It is being cited by opponents of plans to expand TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Senate Democrats have appealed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for further critical review of the project, which would effectively link Canada’s tar sands with Texas. The State Department’s approval is required in order for the project to proceed, and it expects to reach a decision by the end of this year.

“We write to express our continuing concerns regarding TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline,” last week’s letter began. “One need look no further than the ongoing impacts on the Yellowstone River in Montana from a leak in ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline to recognize that such risks are very real.”

Ongoing regulatory delays have led to action in Congress. On Tuesday, the House voted 279-147 to pass a bill sponsored by Nebraska Republican Rep. Lee Terry that would expedite the approval process for the pipeline, requiring the president to make a decision on the project by Nov. 1.

Proponents of the Keystone project say it would increase energy security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil and would create thousands of jobs. But many environmental and safety concerns about the pipeline have been raised, especially because it is slated to run through the sandhills of the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans eight Midwestern states and provides water for over 2 million Americans.

Robert Jones, TransCanada’s vice president and manager of the Keystone project, reportedly dismissed criticism last week at an industry conference, saying that the Keystone XL expansion is simply a target for those who oppose oil in general.

Of Ogallala, TransCanada says that the chance of a significant spill is remote, and that any spill on the aquifer would be “limited to a very small area.” However, the EPA has stated, and Senate Democrats noted in their appeal, that “if a spill did occur, the potential for oil to reach groundwater in these areas is relatively high given shallow water table depths and the high permeability of the soils overlying the aquifer.” A separate study from the University of Nebraska said that in assessing the likelihood of a spill from a newly expanded Keystone pipeline, TransCanada “made several assumptions that are highly questionable.”

Critics of the project also call attention to the fact that the type of oil running through the pipeline – bitumen — is more corrosive than regular crude, meaning the pipes are more likely to sustain damage. In all, they argue that the potential benefits of expanding US oil pipelines are not worth the environmental risks that will be shouldered by human and ecological communities if additional pipeline is laid.

Despite the House vote Tuesday, it remains unclear when a final decision on Keystone will be reached. The Obama Administration has expressed its opposition to the bill, calling the measure “unnecessary.”