Keystone Pipeline springs a leak ahead of crucial decision

Days before Nebraska regulators are set to rule on TransCanada Corp's XL extension to its Keystone pipeline, the existing conduit started leaking and spilled about 5,000 barrels of oil early Thursday in South Dakota.

According to commentators, this will give a handle to environmentalists to ratchet opposition to the XL project. The company shut the line, but the opposition was quick to seize the opportunity.

The spill ''should be a stark reminder of the risk Nebraska would be signing up for,'' said Anthony Swift, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Canada Project, a group that opposes the pipeline, Bloomberg reported. ''The likelihood of spills should weigh into their decision.''

According to the company's statement, the spill occurred in Marshall County. The pipeline, capable of carrying about 600,000 barrels of crude a day from Alberta's oil sands to the US Midwest, is expected to remain shut while the company responds to the spill. TransCanada tentatively plans to restart the line on 23 November, a person familiar with the matter said yesterday, The New York Times reported.

According to analysts, a prolonged shutdown would affect distribution of heavier oil. The line will remain shut until the completion of repairs and TransCanada receives approval from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Terry Cunha, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, about 75 TransCanada workers and contractors were at the site yesterday, along with federal and state regulators, to start work on a lengthy cleanup that will include the excavation of part of the pipeline.

''I would think it's probably weeks for sure,'' said Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. According to Walsh, the spill had been contained and that there was no immediate risk to drinking water or residents.