by Stewart Boss
RHETORIC: In its 2006 pipeline risk assessment for the U.S. State Department permit application, TransCanada predicted that Keystone would see one spill in 7 years.
REALITY: There have been 12 spills in 1 year.
Yellowstone River Clean Up. AP Photo, Jim Urquhart
Back in 1997, National Geographic named the Yellowstone River America’s “last best river.” That was before July 1, when ExxonMobil leaked around 1,000 barrels of crude oil that traveled as far as 240 miles downstream from the site of the spill along the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.
As Congress struggles to understand just what went wrong with the Silvertip Pipeline spill in Montana’s Yellowstone River, the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials met Thursday morning to hear testimony and get answers on what exactly went wrong, and what government and industry can do to avoid similar oil spills in the future.
Unfortunately, this morning’s hearing was chock-full of “we don’t know” responses, illustrating big gaps in the ability of regulators and oil companies to guarantee strong oversight and adequate protection from future accidents. In opening Thursday’s hearing, subcommittee chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) described the spill as a cause for “concern but not alarm.” Not surprisingly, he has received a total of $17,000 from ExxonMobil since 2000 while serving in Congress.
Thursday’s hearing was requested (and attended) by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT). The witnesses at today’s hearing were:
- Cynthia Quarterman, Administrator, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PMHSA), U.S. Department of Transportation
- Gary W. Pruessing, President, ExxonMobil Pipeline Company
- Douglas B. Inkley, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, National Wildlife Federation
Of particular concern was Quarterman’s response to a question from Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), in which she admitted that it would likely not be until August or later that PMHSA would be able to recover the ruptured section of pipeline due to the persistently high water levels in the Yellowstone River. She said that it “may take weeks if not months” before the pipeline can be brought up from the riverbed to enable PHMSA to complete an investigation into the cause of the spill.
NPR has been covering the story, featuring an angry interview with Montana’s Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer that you can listen to here, as well as a follow-up interview with ExxonMobil’s Pruessing, which you can listen to here. Schweitzer explained the impact of the crisis like this: