As America’s “Last Best River” Suffers Through Exxon Spill, Experts Warn of Risks from Keystone XL Pipeline

by Stewart BossRHETORIC: 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.

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:

NORRIS: If I were actually to visit the stretch of the river that has been affected by the oil spill, would I see evidence of the oil right now?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: No. If you stood along the bank, what you would see is a big river. And in order to find the oil spill, what you’ve got to do is you have to fan out across the lowlands. I want you to do a little experiment, folks, in your own home and then I can tell you what happened.

Go to your kitchen and get out a big cookie sheet, you know, those ones where you bake brownies or cookies, and put that on your counter. Then take the biggest bowl you own and put it in the middle of it. Fill that bowl within an inch of the surface with tap water. And then get out some olive oil or some other dark oil that you have and fill the bowl to the brim. Don’t spill any yet; that’s bank fill. That’s when the Yellowstone was just to its bank but not flooding.

But on the night that this pipeline burst, the Yellowstone was over its banks. So now, what I want you to do with this bowl is add another glass of water, pour it from three feet in the air and then take a big spoon and splash it a little bit, and it will now go over the side of the ball. And it will spread evenly as a thin film across that cookie sheet. Leave it alone for a day. The water will evaporate, and what you’re left with is a thin film of oil. That’s what happened on the Yellowstone River.

In his testimony today, NWF’s Inkley highlighted a few key points:

  1. Along with the Gulf oil disaster and Michigan’s Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill, the Yellowstone River oil spill is America’s third major oil disaster in just 15 months.
  2. In large spills at sea, at best only 10 to 15 percent of the total oil spilled is ever recovered. The fast moving current of the Yellowstone River makes oil recovery difficult due to likely rapid entrainment of oil into the water column.
  3. Oil degrades through various processes, but the heavier oil molecules especially can persist in the environment for years, with long-lasting impacts.

To its credit, despite initial controversies over the timeline of the spill, ExxonMobil appears to be working diligently to clean up the mess and stay on top of things. There were no pending or outstanding safety violations, and although regulators expressed concern about the potential impacts that flooding could have, they were checking that the pipeline was in compliance less than a month before the spill.

Which illustrates the whole scope of the problem: at the end of the day, Americans are being offered a false promise by government and industry that we can simultaneously protect the environment and achieve strong pipeline safety. The irony is crystal clear as the House GOP works to fast-track the decision on a 1,700 mile extension of the Keystone XL pipeline project with HR 1938, introduced by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE). As NWF observes, despite continuing promises about the safety and integrity of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada has already been proven to be wildly overoptimistic about the safety of its existing pipeline infrastructure:

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.

EPA has also criticized the State Department’s draft analysis of the proposed pipeline’s environmental impacts as “insufficient” for the second year in a row. Despite some progress on the issue of pipeline safety over the last few decades, there is still not a model to adequately secure pipeline infrastructure and regulation in the U.S. today. The problems surrounding this spill suggests that jeopardizing our “last best river” wasn’t an accident, but rather a calculated risk that was and continues to be deemed acceptable to feed an American addiction to oil.

When it comes to a project like the Keystone XL pipeline extension, it’s an inherently double-edged sword: the massive expansion of tar sands oil production will further destabilize climate; as NASA scientist James Hansen made clear, the pipeline “would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.” That climate disruption, which is already starting to occur, has contributed to the Yellowstone River running at four times its usual flow this year and likely caused the spill in the first place. Those high water levels are now going to keep federal investigators from accessing or examining the ruptured section of pipeline for weeks or months.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the capping of the BP Gulf oil spill. Since then, no oil spill legislation has been passed by Congress, and the oil and gas companies (ExxonMobil included) that have been raking in billions of dollars in profits have been spending that money investing on stock buybacks to drive up their own share prices rather than improving the safety of their pipeline infrastructure.


The spill in Montana is a travesty in its own right, but it’s also a clear signal that whatever the U.S. is doing now with regards to pipeline safety still isn’t working the way it should. Extreme weather induced by climate change is only going to further disrupt this faulty infrastructure.

— Stewart Boss, energy intern with the Center for American Progress