An Exxon Mobil pipeline buried under the Yellowstone River in Montana burst with terrible effect last week, poisoning the river that Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) has called “a cornerstone of Montana’s economy and our outdoor heritage.” The hour-long spill — which lasted twice as long as Exxon initially admitted — released about 42,000 gallons of toxic oil, to current knowledge.
The Obama administration is now considering whether to approve the construction of a vastly larger pipeline, the Keystone XL project, which would deliver tar sands crude from Canada to Texas refineries, crossing the Yellowstone River, 1,903 other key waterways, and major aquifers along the way. The Keystone pipeline would deliver 830,000 barrels per day, over 20 times the 40,000-barrel Silvertip pipeline that failed last week.
As NRDC’S Anthony Swift relates, the government’s approach to pipeline safety does not lead to confidence regarding Keystone XL:
Several days after the Yellowstone spill, pipeline safety regulators at the Department of Transportation reacted by issuing Exxon-Mobil’s Silvertip pipeline a Corrective Action Order (CAO) which requires the company to make safety improvements to the pipeline before it can restart. In issuing the order, Secretary LaHood said “when companies are not living up to our safety standards, we will take action.”
Here’s the problem — Exxon was living up to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) safety standards. True, Exxon’s decision to build an unprotected crude pipeline only 5 to 8 feet below a flood prone river appears to have been imprudent. Exxon’s decision to restart the pipeline in May despite heavy flooding was foolish. However, the real story is that this string of reckless decisions was permitted by both our pipeline safety regulations and the regulators who enforce them.
This reactive approach to pipeline safety regulation is evidenced by the Department of Transportation’s approach to Keystone XL and other pipelines carrying raw tar sands crude. In her recent testimony to Congress on pipeline safety, Cynthia Quarterman, the Administrator of DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), conceded that her agency did not have a handle on the safety risks that raw tar sands pipelines pose. Specifically, she said that the U.S. pipeline system was not designed with the risks of raw tar sands crude in mind, her agency had not evaluated those risks, and she did not know whether current safety regulations were sufficient to address them. Despite these serious unknowns, her agency has not actively engaged in the consideration of the Keystone XL.
Transcanada’s “first tar sands pipeline, Keystone I, has had thirty three leaks in the U.S. and Canada in less than one year of operation,” Swift writes, “and is the youngest pipelines in the U.S. to be deemed by regulators a threat to life, property and the environment. ”