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Posted on February 7th, 2023

Our Changing Landscape – Keystone Pipeline Leak in Kansas

In this monthly feature, we span the globe to examine Our Changing Landscape with a time series of medium-resolution PlanetScope satellite imagery. The PlanetScope constellation dates back to 2016 and collects hundreds of millions of square kilometers of four, five and eight-band 3-meter imagery daily! In January, we looked at the Symrise chemical plant explosion in Georgia. This month, we’re headed to rural Kansas to look at a Keystone Pipeline oil spill that happened in December.

Click on the image above to see an animation of 3-meter natural color PlanetScope imagery collected over what is considered ‘ground zero’ for the Keystone Pipeline leak in rural Kansas, USA on December 1 and 7, 2022 which was a few days before the rupture was reported. In these two images there is no evidence of the pipeline rupture before it was reported by TC Energy. You can see the Keystone Pipeline traversing the landscape from north to south in these images – it is very faint but if you keep your eyes at the center of the animation and you should see it eventually. (Images Courtesy: © Planet 2023)

The PlanetScope Microsat Constellation

PlanetScope is a constellation of more than 240 microsats (as of January 2022) referred to individually as Doves. Each Dove is able to collect up to 20,000 square kilometers (sq km) per day of 3-meter (m) 4-band multispectral (i.e. blue, green, red and near-infrared [NIR]) imagery; and newly launched SuperDoves collect 8-band multispectral adding in valuable red-edge spectral data. Across the constellation, PlanetScope is archiving more than 200 million sq km of medium-resolution imagery a day, making it the go to source for daily imagery over most locations. This massive archive dates back to 2016, offering the most complete and continuous record of spatial data on the planet since the start of the constellation’s ongoing launch schedule. Collecting 3-meter multispectral imagery is the equivalent of ‘high-resolution’ multispectral data imaged by a 75-centimer (cm) satellite (as this satellite would feature 75-cm panchromatic and 3-m multispectral), making PlanetScope an extremely competitively priced option at just $1.80 per sq km. With well registered images and nearly daily collections of most locations, PlanetScope is the ideal imagery source for this current-events focused series, Our Changing Landscape.

Keystone Pipeline Leak in Washington County, Kansas

On Friday, December 9, 2022, the Keystone Pipeline ruptured and dumped 14,000 barrels (nearly 600,000 gallons) of oil in rural Washington County, Kansas, the largest American crude oil spill in more than a decade. Unfortunately, due to the location of the pipeline break, the oil ran down a pastured hillside and into the nearby Mill Creek.

The “Y shaped” Keystone Pipeline System stretches 2,687 miles in length, running from Canada across the U.S, supplying crude oil to markets around North America. The pipeline is owned and operated by TC Energy, and was commissioned in 2010.

Unfortunately, the December 2022 oil leak wasn’t the first the company has seen. The pipeline experienced leaks in 2016, 2017 and 2019, resulting in an estimated cumulative oil loss of nearly 19,120 barrels of oil.

Further complicating matters, the leak substance was diluted bitumen oil, which tends to sink in water, making it much harder to clean up. Once the oil sinks, it is then absorbed into the streambeds, making it very difficult to detect, retrieve and contain. Bitumen oil changes drastically in chemical composition and behavior after escaping pipelines, becoming far sticker and more difficult to remove than other types of oil. According to Steve Hamilton, a biologist who advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the cleanup of a bitumen oil spill in Michigan in 2010, the oil proved so gooey that clean up teams found it easier to haul away rocks that had been coated with the gunk, rather than try to clean them.

TC Energy is in the process of cleaning up the Mill Creek area, but due to the nature of bitumen oil, it’s expected to be a long process. After the 2010 bitumen spill in Michigan, it took four years and more than $1.2 billion to retrieve as much of the oil as possible.

Four mammals and 71 fish have been found dead because of the spill, and the Kansas Department of Wildlife is still assessing other dead and injured animals. At the moment, the cause of the oil spill remains unknown. Now it is time to turn to the 3-meter PlanetScope archive to see if it can help narrow down the exact time of the rural pipeline rupture.

If you would like to find out more about using 3-meter PlanetScope imagery for your academic studies, engineering projects or any landscape analysis, let us know at or (303) 993-3863.

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