Yet another Alberta oil spill puts spotlight on Keystone safety

On Thursday, Plains Midstream Canada was notified of an oil spill in Alberta's Jackson Creek, a tributary of the Red Deer River.

An estimated 1,000 to 3,000 barrels — or 160,000 to 475,000 litres — of oil spilled from a pipeline. The damage is expected to be significant, especially with the Red Deer River currently flooding and likely to speed up the spread of oil.

This isn't the first Albertan oil spill in recent memory, or even the second.

In late April of last year, 28,000 barrels of oil spilled on the Rainbow pipeline in northern Alberta. A welding crack was blamed for the "very significant" leak.

Critics argued that the province's aging pipe network was cause for serious concern. Earlier that month, another leak on an aging pipeline spilled a small amount of oil into an unnamed Alberta stream.

In May of this year, "less than 5,000 barrels" of light oil spilled north of Grand Prairie — considerably less than the early estimate of 22,000 barrels — from a hole in piping into into a water disposal well.

"What has this PC government done since last year to make sure spills like this don't happen?" Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley asked at the time.

"When we have old infrastructure, new operators, and industry self-monitoring, we have a recipe for environmental disasters across this province. This is not the way to establish international credibility on environmental management and sustainable development," Notley told QMI Agency.

And now with this latest spill, critics and environmentalists are against raising the alarm.

David Suzuki's solution? Get off oil.

"What we do know is that no matter how many times oil companies tell us that practices and technology are improving, we'll never stop having spills so long as we depend on fossil fuels and the devices — including pipelines — that move them between coasts, countries and continents," Suzuki wrote on his website.

In response to the huge 2011 spill, Suzuki urged Albertans to demand plans to protect the province — and to demand the cessation of taxpayer-funded subsided to oil companies — of their political leaders, and to get behind a shift to a clean-energy economy.

Enter the Keystone Pipeline System, a cross-border pipeline system designed to transport up to 590,000 barrels a day of synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from northeastern Alberta's Athabasca Oil Sands to multiple American destinations.

With Phase 1 already complete, US President Barack Obama has announced that the final decision on whether the pipeline is in the United States' national interest will be made in 2013, pending environmental review.

If elected, Mitt Romney claims he'll approve Keystone XL, the proposed expansion, on his first day in the White House.

"I will build that pipeline if I have to myself," he said in April, claiming that Obama missed creating thousands of jobs by not immediately approving it.

Environmentalists worry that the pipeline's extension will damage ecosystems and put others at risk, with part of it crossing an active seismic zone. There are also geopolitical arguments in defence of the pipeline: if the U.S. doesn't get its oil from Canada, it will just get it from the south, a less environmentally-friendly decision that would likely hurt the Canadian economy.

(Refuting this, Alberta's premier has acknowledged that the province is pursuing exports to Asia rather than solely relying on an unstable American market.)

Oh, and gas prices might rise.

These criticisms aside, what about leakage? What accountability is in place to ensure these "huge" Alberta spills don't happen again, possibly on even larger scales? Is the risk of losing drinking water one worth taking?

We may not be ready to live oil-free, but something needs to change in the way we transport it.