Nearly 300 oil spills and 750 “oil field incidents” have occurred in North Dakota since January 2012 and none were reported to the public, according to a report released Friday by the Associated Press.
The investigation was spurred by a pipeline that spewed over 20,000 barrels of crude oil into a North Dakota wheat field earlier this month and went unreported for 11 days until it was discovered by a farmer harvesting his wheat.
In the wake of the report, the state’s Health Department announced it is testing a website to disseminate information about oil spills to the public but the AP notes that in the nation’s second-largest oil producing state, that only addresses part of the problem.
North Dakota regulators, like in many other oil-producing states, are not obliged to tell the public about oil spills under state law. But in a state that’s producing a million barrels a day and saw nearly 2,500 miles of new pipelines last year, many believe the risk of spills will increase, posing a bigger threat to farmland and water.
Rapidly increasing production from oil and gas fields in Canada and several U.S. states is putting increasing pressure on the industry to expand its network of pipelines that transport the product to refineries. In the wake of this unprecedented expansion, spill detection and reporting are just two of many concerns.
Carl Weimer, head of the Pipeline Safety Trust, told Climate Progress in an earlier interview that much of the process, from determining the route of new pipelines to oversight and compliance of existing ones, is left up to the companies themselves. And at the end of the day, “each company is just trying to capitalize and make money.” To make matters worse, he says “state and local government really hasn’t thought about it much — is unprepared — and pipelines will go into place before there are policies to guide the construction. It can really affect the way local communities may develop and often happens before the community has any sense of what they can do about it.”
In September, Jeffrey Weise, head of the Office of Pipeline Safety at the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), spoke candidly about his agency’s difficulty in enforcing regulations. “Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty?,” he asked the crowd of oil and gas pipeline compliance officers. “No.”
In addition to the obstacles regulators face in enforcing existing rules, creating new ones can take up to three years. Inside Climate News reported that as a result, Wiese announced that the agency was taking to YouTube — creating a channel it hopes will persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations.