Perilous Pipelines

July 7th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

ExxonMobil's paper towel mobilization

At the height of the controversy last year over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, top executives from four competing oil giants appeared before Congress and distanced themselves from their British rival.

“We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” smugly stated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “It certainly appears that not all the standards that we would recommend or that we would employ were in place,” chimed in Chevron chairman John Watson.

Now that ExxonMobil is at the center of an oil pipeline spill into Montana’s flooded Yellowstone River, Tillerson should be feeling somewhat less self-satisfied. And the rest of us have another reminder that poor safety practices in the petroleum industry are far from an anomaly.

It is also a reminder that companies professing concern about the environment can end up being major offenders. In 2008 the ExxonMobil refinery in Billings served by the Silvertip pipeline that just burst received certification from the Wildlife Habit Council for its efforts to conserve ecosystems and protect wildlife in and around company operations. Some of that wildlife is now covered in crude oil.

When people hear about oil spills, they tend to think of the large offshore incidents such as the BP mess in the gulf and ExxonMobil’s 1989 disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Equally dismal is the history of onshore spills caused by ruptures in the vast network of pipelines that carry crude oil from drilling sites to refineries.

A year ago this time, the news media were transmitting images very similar the ones now coming out of Montana. In July 2010 a burst pipeline released more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan.

The company involved in the Michigan accident–Enbridge Inc., operator of the world’s largest crude oil pipeline system–had been warned by federal regulators that it was not properly monitoring corrosion on the pipeline. Over the past decade, Enbridge’s pipelines have been involved in a long list of ruptures and leaks in places such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Alberta.

Enbridge, which is based in Canada, has annual revenues of more than $15 billion, has not felt much pain from the fines imposed by the U.S. regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which are often below $100,000. However, in response to a November 2007 explosion in Clearbrook, Minnesota that took two lives, Enbridge was fined $2.4 million.

What’s even more troubling than Enbridge’s past record is that the company is seeking to greatly expand its network, with a special focus on the environmentally disastrous tar sand fields of northern Alberta. Bringing the filthy oil output of the tar sands down to the United States is also the objective of the huge Keystone XL pipeline that would pass through eastern Montana (and the Yellowstone River) on its way to Texas.

Moreover, it would traverse the Ogallala Aquifer, which, NRDC points out, serves as the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation. Keystone XL, an expansion of an existing pipeline that opened last year, is awaiting federal approval. Earlier this year the existing pipeline was shut down for about a week after a series of a dozen leaks at pumping stations.

For companies such as TransCanada, Enbridge and ExxonMobil, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what they are willing to spend on projects such as Keystone XL (its price tag is $7 billion).  Yet when it comes to cleaning up their messes, things suddenly become austere. The main tools that ExxonMobil’s crews in Montana seem to be employing are glorified paper towels. If the fines for violations were more substantial, the pipeline companies might take safety more seriously.

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