By Jessica Goad and Christy Goldfuss.
The Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure met yesterday morning to gather information about ExxonMobil Pipeline Company’s Silvertip Pipeline spill along Montana’s Yellowstone River earlier this month, which dumped 42,000 gallons of crude oil into America’s “last best river.”
Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), the chairman of the subcommittee, called the hearing to “track down the cause of this spill and learn from it” and to “make sure something like this never happens again.” Today he and other senators took to task both Exxon and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the regulatory agency which oversees pipelines.
Frustration over the pipeline spill revolved around the continuing lack of information about it — the Exxon witness Gary Pruessing, President of the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, said that almost three weeks later, “we do not yet know the precise cause of the current breach in the Silvertip Pipeline.” Even though the pipeline had recently been checked out and deemed in compliance by the PHMSA, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) pointed out that the pipeline had received a number of warnings from the agency in the past:
PRUESSING: At the time that this incident occurred, we did not have any outstanding issues from a regulatory standpoint on this pipeline.
LAUTENBERGWell, I have a list of criticism and complaints that PHMSA talked to ExxonMobil about going back to January 30, 2003: proposed compliance order, notice of amendment, February 18, 2005 probable violation, compliance order, proposed civil penalty, notice of amendment. The list goes on, there are nine of those. And that doesn’t sound like it’s very insignificant or relatively minor things to me. I’m sure you’re aware of these, would you say they are minor?
Many questions remain unanswered after today’s hearing, both about the Yellowstone spill and about pipeline safety and regulation in general. For example, Exxon has promised to pay “all legitimate claims” for the cleanup of this spill, but experience with BP has shown that this rhetoric can turn out hollow. Indeed, BP just recently modified its compensation policy saying that only oyster famers should receive compensation for future losses because the area is recovering economically and environmentally. This, of course, came after the company promised to pay “all legitimate claims” after the Gulf spill.
Additionally, while today’s hearing was designed to probe the causes and effects of a spill in one state, the U.S. State Department is currently reviewing plans for a much bigger pipeline across six states and one province. The Keystone XL Pipeline, an addition to the current Keystone pipeline that traverses the country, is designed to transport Alberta tar sands all the way south to Texas. This pipeline is vastly bigger than Exxon’s Silvertip. Whereas Silvertip is 69 miles long, Keystone XL is 1,661 miles long — 27 times the distance.
This means that Keystone would carry far more oil, up to 900,000 barrels per day, and as such a spill could have drastic consequences. In fact, The Hill reported last month that there have already been 14 leaks on the existing portion of the pipeline since it began operating in the spring of 2010. In response, federal pipeline regulators issued a corrective action order to TransCanada, just as they did for ExxonMobil’s spill two weeks ago. But future spills could be worse and more frequent — TransCanada’s own estimates show that the Keystone XL pipeline would have 11 “significant spills” over its 50-year lifecycle, while an independent analyst guessed that this could actually be as many as 91 spills — two per year.