Yellowstone River Oil Spill: The Only Thing Missing is Joe Barton Apologizing to Exxon

No, the Barton apology hasn’t happened (yet), but otherwise the Yellowstone River oil spill is déjà vu all over again:

  1. Warnings of danger ignored
  1. : “Exxon had briefly shut the pipeline in May after local officials expressed concern about the pipeline’s safety, but determined that the level at which it was buried in the river bed — five to eight feet deep — was safe enough, and promptly resumed operations.”
  2. Large spill in pristine area
  1. : “An ExxonMobil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Mont. ruptured near midnight Friday and leaked hundreds of barrels of oil into the river, contaminating riverbanks and flooding fields for miles.”
  2. Big Oil misleads public about speed of response
  1. : “Exxon initially gave conflicting information about how long it took to shut off the valves on the leaking pipeline, saying to the public that it took about 30 minutes when in fact it took 49.”
  2. Public uninformed about health consequences
  1. : Rancher “Nilson said she and some of her family members breathed pungent vapors in the days after the spill, and now they’re concerned about the pollution’s impact on their groundwater. Nilson said she has been kept in the dark about the health effects of the oil and whether officials are monitoring health effects.”

And let’s not forget the tragically ironic link of this spill to extreme weather, as Naomi Klein reminds us in this must-read LA Times op-ed:

The flooding of the Yellowstone River and the oil spill in the riverbed are connected, and the burning of fossil fuels is the key.

… Everyone agrees that the two disasters — the flooding of the Yellowstone River and the oil spill in the riverbed — are connected. According to Exxon officials, the high and fast-moving river has four times its usual flow this year, which has hampered cleanup and prevented their workers from reaching the exact source of the spill. Also thanks to the flooding, the oiled water has breached the riverbanks, inundating farmland, endangering animals, killing crops and contaminating surface water. And the rush of water appears to be carrying the oil toward North Dakota.

Government and company officials have also speculated that the flooding may even have caused the spill in the first place. Recent testing showed the pipeline was buried five to eight feet under the riverbed, but officials suspect that raging water may have exposed the pipe, leaving it vulnerable to fast-moving debris.

So the flooding may have caused the pipeline spill. But here is the really uncomfortable question: Did the pipeline cause the flooding? Not this one particular pipeline, of course, but all the pipelines, and all the coal trains, and all the refineries and the power plants they supply? Was the flooding that has made the oil spill so much worse caused by the burning of oil and other fossil fuels? Put bluntly, do these dual disasters have the same root?

This is an unanswerable question, since no one weather event can be traced to climate change. Still, in Montana, it’s hard to deny that global warming is happening. The state is home to Glacier National Park, which had 150 large glaciers in 1850 and now has just 25, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

And we do know that Montana’s flooding was caused by record rainfall and by runoff from heavy snowfall. Though climate deniers (some of them funded by Exxon) love to point to freak snowstorms as “proof” that the planet isn’t warming, the opposite is often true: In some places, the warmer the air, the more water vapor accumulates in the atmosphere and the more moisture comes down in the form of rain or snow.

As Scott put it to me, “We went from drought to rain forest in just a few months. The weather has just been bizarre.”

Despite all this, Montana is in the midst of a fossil fuel frenzy. The state’s governor may be shaking his fist at Exxon now, but he has championed virtually every fossil fuel project that has crossed his desk, from a vast new coal mine near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, to new rail lines that would help ship Montana’s coal to China, to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

What has to happen before people realize that accelerating the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, particularly the most carbon-intensive ones, like the tar sands, is a greedy, myopic, and self-destructive act?

h/t to Peter Sinclair for the Barton photoshop

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