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The Fragility of Security: The Messy Aftermath of the Keystone XL Leak

February 15, 2018 | Chloe Logan

On November 16, 2017, not even a year after the cessation of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the transnational Keystone Pipeline System leaked the equivalent of 5,000 barrels of oil into northeastern South Dakota.[1] More than 1,000 barrels had been recovered as of November 25,[2] but the security implications of this environmental disaster have just begun.

More than just polluting the environment, the Keystone Pipeline leak has become an important national security issue. Among the most serious consequences of such a leak are groundwater contamination and agricultural ruin.[3] While the impact of the leak is still under evaluation, what is to say that the pipeline will not leak again, and in a more densely populated area? Food and water supplies could be interrupted, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Where basic human needs are not met, there is no security.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person” and that a necessary component of that is the right to an acceptable standard of living and adequate food supply.[4] The destruction of crops due to the pipeline leak might render an inadequate food supply, violating Article 25 obligations, and a lack of clean water would surely violate the right to life and security of person stated in Article 3. Thus, in addition to securing the pipeline’s infrastructure and cleaning up after the leak, the Keystone Pipeline developers must guarantee that the food and water supply are left unaffected. In the case that the food and water supply are temporarily damaged, the Keystone Pipeline developers have the positive obligation to ensure the provision of safe food and water to those affected by the spill. Should there be an inadequate supply of food and water and the Keystone Pipeline developers do not take such action, a breach of international human rights law would occur.

Nebraska’s decision on November 20 to extend the Keystone Pipeline through the state has only augmented the discussion surrounding the pipeline’s implications.[5] Proponents of the extension, such as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, argue that the longer the pipeline, the more energy security the United States will have, as the United States can rely on greater intracontinental cooperation with Canada.[6] Is energy security really worth a possible compromise to human security? Nebraskan policymakers did consider the environmental and human impact of the expansion, but perhaps not to its full extent.

The pipeline developers and the United States and Canadian governments must take reactive measures to amend the pipeline’s infrastructure and confirm that the leak had no significant effects on agriculture or water sources. Additional proactive measures should then be taken to ensure that another such environmental disaster is not just unlikely, but nearly impossible. Only then should the pipeline’s developers and the Nebraska state government begin to consider the pipeline’s expansion. In the meantime, thousands of barrels of leaked oil await recovery.


Chloe Logan is a first-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School concentrating in international security studies and gender analysis in international studies with a focus on counterterrorism analysis. Prior to Fletcher, she graduated with a B.A. from the University of Michigan, followed by a year working in central France and two years conducting automotive data analysis.


[1] Steven Mufson, and Chris Mooney, "Keystone pipeline spills 210,000 gallons of oil on eve of permitting decision for TransCanada," the Washington Post, November 16, 2017, <> (accessed December 03, 2017).

[2] John Bowden, "44K gallons recovered so far from Keystone pipeline spill," The Hill, November 25, 2017, <> (accessed December 03, 2017).

[3] Mitch Smith and Julie Bosman, "Keystone Pipeline Leaks 210,000 Gallons of Oil in South Dakota," The New York Times, November 16, 2017, <> (accessed December 03, 2017).

[4] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN General Assembly document A/3/217 A, December 10, 1948.

[5] Deanna Hackney and Holly Yan, "Nebraska approves path for controversial Keystone XL pipeline," CNN, November 20, 2017, <> (accessed December 03, 2017).

[6] Caley Ramsay, "Alberta politicians react to approval of Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska," Global News, November 21, 2017, <> (accessed December 03, 2017).

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