An oil pipeline in northwestern North Dakota spewed an estimated 20,600 barrels of crude oil into a wheat field, the state’s department of health said on Thursday.
The Associated Press reported that the spill was discovered on September 29 by a farmer harvesting wheat. “The farmer was harvesting his wheat and started smelling oil,” state environmental geologist Kris Roberts told AP. “It went from there.”
Initially, the spill was estimated to be only 750 barrels of oil and the company was permitted to burn off the oil on the surface. After further inspection, however, additional oil was discovered below the surface, prompting company officials to revise their estimate this week.
According to Reuters, “this is the biggest oil spill in North Dakota since 1 million barrels of salt water brine, a by-product of oil production, leaked from a well site in 2006.”
The company responsible for the spill, Tesoro Logistics, said in a statement that the damaged portion of the pipeline had been shut down and cleanup operations were underway. Tesoro projected the spill will cost the company approximately $4 million.
Both the cause and duration of the spill are still being investigated. Leak detection is one of many aspects of the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal that have come under fire. According to an analysis by the U.S. State Department, the pipeline would have to be “spilling more than 12,000 barrels a day — or 1.5 percent of its 830,000 barrel capacity — before its currently planned internal spill-detection systems would trigger an alarm.”
The North Dakota pipeline was carrying oil from the Bakken shale formation, where oil and gas production is booming and predicted to increase. As a result, companies are quickly running out of pipelines to transport their product to refiners and are pushing for a rapid expansion of their pipeline network.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust, told Climate Progress in an earlier interview that federal regulations and inspections lag far behind this fast-moving expansion. As a result, oversight, safety inspections, and planning of future routes is determined by the companies themselves. “We’re leaving it up to these individual companies to come up with their own solutions to figure out how to move energy and we don’t have any national policy guiding those decisions,” Weimer said.
And in an ominous sign for the cleanup effort and any other spills, Reuters noted that “the regional EPA office could not be reached because of the government shutdown.”