A cruel summer for oil spills


There hasn’t been as much talk lately about the Keystone XL project, the massive proposed pipeline that would take some of the dirtiest fuel known to mankind — extracted from the tar sands of western Canada — and ship it across the American heartland to the Gulf Coast, where most it will be shipped to overseas markets. My hunch is that the Obama administration — which feels caught between a rock and a hard place on this one — is desperately hoping to run out the clock.

With the world market for crude oil in a state of flux, it’s certainly possibly that changing energy production and transportation trends will render the Keystone XL project obsolete. That’s not necessarily a good thing — the alternative may be so-called “oil bomb” trains that create a whole different set of risks. But avoiding a Keystone decision would spare Obama from having to alienate either the powerful oil lobby or the environmentalists who supported his election.

Earlier in July, the world got an unfortunate taste of what could go seriously wrong if the Keystone XL project is approved. There was a massive pipeline rupture and spill of tar sands oil in Canada:

Finding the root cause of the oil-sands pipeline leak discovered earlier this month in northern Alberta, one of the biggest oil-related spills on land ever in North America, will likely take months, a senior Nexen Energy executive said on Wednesday.

Nexen, a subsidiary of China’s CNOOC Ltd, is putting a higher priority on cleaning up the spill from its pipeline and investigating its cause than on restarting the Kinosis oil sands project where the spill took place, Ron Bailey, Nexen’s senior vice president of Canadian operations, said during a tour of the site.

Bailey said there were about 130 workers doing clean-up and investigation work at the site.

The leak in the double-layer pipeline spilled more than 31,500 barrels of emulsion, a mixture of bitumen, water and sand, onto an area of about 16,000 square meters (172,000 square feet).

“We’ve actually shut in everything at Kinosis and our priority is not to bring Kinosis back on production,” Bailey said. “We will be focusing on understanding the root cause of any failure here and the reliability of our systems before we ever start up this system again.”

This pipeline was built with a so-called “state-of-the art leak detection system,” the same type of protection that Americans have been promised with the Keystone XL. Now, Canadian officials are forced to use sound cannons in a desperate attempt to keep birds and other wildlife away from the gooey mess. Just imagine the environmental impact if such a spill occurred over the Ogallala Aquifer that provides drinking water to much of the American Great Plains. Last week, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Franz Matzner, noted in an essay that there’ve been a number of major oil spills around North America — including a gasoline spill in Galveston Bay — and that these accidents are endemic to how we transport fossil fuels:

Despite the industry’s slick rhetoric of reassurance about the safety of oil extraction, it is undeniably clear that Big Oil is unable to contain its destructive product to the detriment of our health, communities, and environment. It is high time our elected leaders embrace this indisputable fact and start taking serious steps to reduce our exposure to these risks–starting by saying no to the most extreme projects like drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic coasts or tar sands development–and ensuring that whatever extraction does occur is held to stringent safety standards. Ultimately, however, what the recent headlines make abundantly clear is that we will only be safe from the harms of fossil fuel production when we succeed in moving beyond oil to clean alternatives–and there is no time to waste.

He concludes:

Big Oil wants us to label these spills as unforeseen mistakes. “Accidents happen,” they say. But when a pattern is clear, risks are high, and consequences grave, it’s time to question whether it is right to accept a status quo of predictable, consistent error and harm. Instead, we must acknowledge that each of these oil spills are not only technological mistakes or matters of human error, but systematic failures and allowing them to continue becomes a question of conscience.

Killing the Keystone XL project for good would be a start in the right direction, but it would only be a start. Asking the public to “choose your poison” — between leaky, under-inspected pipelines or potentially explosive oil trains — is a losing proposition. The only environmental policies that make sense are the ones that greatly speed up our transition to clean, renewable fuels.

Find out more about the massive oil spill in Alberta: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/22/us-nexen-pipeline-spill-idUSKCN0PW22020150722

Read Franz Matzner’s essay on recent oil spills for the NRDC: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/fmatzner/big_oil_has_dealt_north.html

I’ve been fighting pollution by Big Oil for more than a quarter-century. Read all about it in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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