Leaking pipelines or exploding rail cars — choose your Big Oil poison

There’s one thing that’s clear — when it comes to North America’s recent oil and gas boom, there’s no way that the average citizen can win. That’s especially true when it comes to the critical issue of how to transport those millions of barrels of oil and natural gas that are now being produced from the Canadian tar sands, from underneath the North Dakota prairie, and elsewhere.

Earlier this year, residents of the small town of Mayflower, Ark., were outraged when they learned that an aging pipeline belonging to ExxonMobil — the Pegasus pipeline — had ruptured in the woods behind their homes and was spewing roughly 5,000 barrels of heavy Canadian crude into their streams and even down their suburban cul-de-sacs. Many of the residents said they had no idea that an oil pipeline was so close to their homes. The Pegasus pipeline has been shuttered since the accident, and now there’s a push to keep it closed for good:

Now, in year 84, Howell admits to becoming an activist, even if he is not particularly fond of the label. Loosely organized by a few citizen action groups, Howell and others in this town — whose official motto is “We Shoot Straight With You” — make up a small, but growing pocket of East Texans who are asking federal regulators to permanently shut down the pipeline. The 65-year-old pipeline, which runs from Patoka, Ill. to Nederland, Texas, has been turned off since the spill, while ExxonMobil complies with a corrective action order from the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates interstate pipelines.

“Half the people who come here don’t know the dang thing is under there,” said Howell, standing behind the front counter of the Main Street medical supply shop he runs. In front of him sits a red binder filled with pictures of the oil-covered Arkansas town, a pile of news articles detailing lawsuits against ExxonMobil and a short stack of petitions he is gathering to send to federal regulators. “They have the right to know.”

As the article notes, a recent push by normally toothless federal regulators to impose a sizable $2.5 million fine on ExxonMobil for the spill in Mayflower and to mandate substantial upgrades to the Pegasus pipeline has raised the possibility it may never reopen:

Anti-pipeline groups, such as Safe Communities Alliance, Public Citizen and Texas Pipeline Watch, have seized on the Mayflower spill as they look to rally support in town meetings throughout East Texas.  A meeting last month in the nearby town of Seven Points, for instance, featured testimony from two residents who lived through the spill. “As soon as I stepped out of the door, I almost threw up,” Ann Jarrell, who lived just 300 yards outside the oil-covered neighborhood, told the audience. She described the smell hanging in the air that day as a mix of burnt tires and asphalt.

Along with her daughter and 3-month-old grandson, Jarrell said she stayed in her home for three weeks, enduring headaches and nausea before her doctor told her to leave. (Because she had no oil on her property, Jarrell said, neither officials from ExxonMobil nor the state suggested that she leave.) Meanwhile, the baby, named Logan, needed help breathing from a ventilator and two inhalers.

Make no mistake, shutting down the Pegasus pipeline for good – given its age and its apparent flaws — would be the right thing to do. But it wouldn’t solve the bigger problem, which is that North America continues to double down on riskier and dirtier fossil fuels, instead of looking for renewable sources of energy. Even shutting older pipelines — given how much oil and gas is being produced on the continent — will merely transfer that risk to somewhere else. Check out the latest with rail transportation:

A train that derailed and exploded in rural Alabama was hauling 2.7 million gallons of crude oil, according to officials.

The 90-car train was crossing a timber trestle above a wetland near Aliceville late Thursday night when approximately 25 rail cars and two locomotives derailed, spilling crude oil into the surrounding wetlands and igniting a fire that was still burning Saturday.

Each of the 90 cars was carrying 30,000 gallons of oil, said Bill Jasper, president of the rail company Genesee & Wyoming at a press briefing Friday night. It’s unclear, though, how much oil was spilled because some of the cars have yet to be removed from the marsh.

That is a large amount of oil — and every bit as damaging as the pipeline spill in Arkansas. There have been several major oil-by-rail accidents this year — most notably the Lac Megantic disaster in Quebec, which also involved crude oil from North Dakota and which claimed 47 lives. Whether by pipeline or rail, there is clearly a need for more inspections and tighter safety rules — at the minimum. But the safest measure of all would be to keep the oil in the ground.

To find out more about efforts to shut down ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, please read: http://www.myhighplains.com/story/after-arkansas-spill-east-texans-seek-permanent-shutdown-of-pipeline/d/story/Eu-IYTG6-0mKflkB5PoNuw

To learn more about this weekend’s rail accident in Alabama, check out: http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-train-crash-alabama-oil-20131109,0,780637.story#axzz2kTG9Ay8Y

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