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States Are More Worried About Pipeline Protesters Than Spills

The latest Keystone pipeline leak is one of many: The U.S. averages one crude oil spill every other day.

A 2014 protest against Keystone XL (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Keystone pipeline sprang a leak. Again.

This time, it released 383,040 gallons of oil into the northeastern wetlands of North Dakota. Two years ago, the same pipeline, which spans some 2,600 miles from Canada to Nebraska before splintering off, burst in South Dakota. Initial reports from TransCanada, the company recently renamed TC Energy that owns and operates the Keystone system, posited in 2017 that the spill was roughly 210,000 gallons in size. Then, five months later, the company was forced to admit that, actually, the spill had been twice as large. Both the most recent spill and the 2017 one rank among the top-ten largest onshore spills in the past decade.

In the time between the two incidents, the federal and state governments have done little to protect their citizens against such spills. The regular fines for safety violations tend to be in the low six figures—a paltry sum for a company regularly taking in over $7 billion in gross annual profits. Rather than raising the cost of contaminating vast swaths of American lands, the state and federal governments have spent their time re-codifying and weaponizing the legal system against citizens opposing further pipeline construction.


The week before Keystone sent its contents seeping into the soil, two South Dakota Republican state leaders quietly walked back a pair of laws they had championed earlier this spring.

The two bills, Senate Bill 189 and Senate Bill 190, came to be known as the riot-boosting bills. The legislation would have permitted law enforcement—be it local, state, or out-of-state forces, as were used at Standing Rock—to charge pipeline protestors with felonies rather than misdemeanors. It also would have allowed the state government to sue any out-of-state groups that contributed to the protests, with the option for a third party like, say, an oil or construction company, to join the lawsuit and recoup any sunk costs. The ACLU promptly sued the state, and the governor and attorney general in mid-October signed a settlement agreeing that state executives could not enforce such laws, but which did not repeal the legislation itself.

South Dakota is one of seven states to pass such legislation, which seems to promise to jail any local inhabitants—including, notably, indigenous individuals—who dare protect their land and their water, and scare off anyone who would think to join them. The laws, all seven of them passed since the Standing Rock protests, have represented a joint oil industry and the state government response to those protests—a barrier to something like Standing Rock ever developing in their own states.

This is largely the same direction the federal government has moved in since the arrival of President Donald Trump in the White House nearly three years ago. One of Trump’s first executive actions was to reverse predecessor Barack Obama’s decision to deny the Keystone XL permit, triggering a cascade of court decisions that ultimately seem to point toward approval and construction. In the meantime, Trump’s administration, particularly its fossil-fuel-friendly agency directors, have managed to recreate the Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior with these goals in mind. Updates on their pushes for the deregulation of extractive industry and the opening of federal land for mining and drilling arrive at breakneck speed, while the consultation of tribal governments and affected community members have been shuffled off to the side.

The courts have sometimes pushed back on the protest laws: The South Dakota law was first blocked in a ruling from a South Dakota judge in September, before state executives agreed to the settlement. But so far, they have been less inclined to block Trump’s clumsy push on Keystone XL altogether.


Politicians willing to hold oil companies accountable are few and far between. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a Republican, spoke to TC Energy officials on Thursday night, reportedly asking them to review their line inspection and monitoring practices. It’s a nice gesture, to be sure—but one that needs to be seen in light of Burgum’s other actions. In 2017, Burgum signed a bill into law that allowed companies to skip out on self-reporting spills less than 420 gallons. The same day, he signed a bill establishing a Department of Environmental Quality, officially severing the overseeing process from the state Department of Health.

In the wake of the latest spill, Dave Glatt, appointed head of the new department and a member of Burgum’s cabinet, has similarly asked TC Energy to review their processes. Glatt has even admitted multiple times, most recently in light of a blanketed 2015 gas plant spill, that the public deserves more transparency when it comes to spills. (Glatt, presumably as part of his job, has also spoken at a number of oil-and-gas conferences in the past year.)

What all these seemingly good-faith attempts at preventing future spills ignore is that these same actors have been overseeing the same industry and system since the last major disaster, and the last one, and the one before that. When it comes to pipelines, the simple fact is that it is a matter of when, not if, a series micro-fractures or a loose bolt or a lightning strike will send the pipe’s contents into the ground and potentially into the drinking water or farmland of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of citizens and wildlife. The maps and the data are all widely available to peruse for one’s own horror: As of 2016, the United States was averaging one crude oil spill every other day, or 200 barrels every 24 hours.

In the midst of yet another oil spill, TC Energy spent Monday scooping up a pleasant local news spot for doling out a grant to a glass recycling center while simultaneously announcing a separate $1.2 billion expansion for a natural gas pipeline north of the border and boasting a net earnings of $739 million in the third quarter alone.

This is the shell game as the oil industry intends it to work—keep prying eyes distracted from the truth, minimize the initial bad press, and make verbal gesticulations indicating you are sorry for any harm done. By the time the true scope of the issue emerges, you’re already securing your next multi-million dollar, government-backed deal. There is nothing passive or accidental about it.

At the site of the latest spill in North Dakota, TC Energy security guards, not just the state-funded police, were present as soon as the company realized it had a catastrophe on its hands. As reported by the Grand Forks Herald, company security was there to stop and fine anyone who “ignored the closed road signs.” Safety measures, these days, could also be read as a warning to any who dare take a closer look.