As pipeline spills get worse, regulators are in bed with Big Oil


The website Midwest Energy News asks a very good question:

When a ruptured pipeline spilled 20,000 barrels of oil into a North Dakota wheat field last month, a state health official said it was “the best place it could’ve occurred” — far from population centers and water supplies.

But what if a similar spill occurs in the worst place?

For better or worse, the year 2013 will be remembered as the year of the oil-and-gas transportation crisis. Already, we’ve had the ExxonMobil pipeline spill that assaulted a residential neighborhood in Arkansas, and the deadly rail catastrophe that devastated a small town in Quebec. The incident referred to by the Midwest News was particularly appalling — a major spill in a North Dakota field that went undetected for days.

Thanks to fracking and other high-tech drilling techniques, the United States is once again the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels — and it’s done so without the transportation infrastructure to carry all that oil and gas to market. Now the industry is pressuring the Obama administration to approve a large-scale Keystone XL pipeline project — that I very much oppose — but the story that’s not getting nearly enough attention is how badly both industry and government regulators do with the industry we’ve got.

The other day I wrote about how Washington doesn’t have nearly enough inspectors for the growing number of pipeline miles. Now it turns out that the inspectors that we have are not spending their time very wisely:

U.S. federal pipeline safety workers spend more time schmoozing at industry events and conferences than taking care of the millions of miles of pipeline laid across the U.S., according to records released Tuesday by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“PHMSA is like the college student who does his research assignments at frat parties rather than in the library,” Kathryn Douglass, the environmental group’s staff counsel, said in a statement about the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Between 2007 and 2012 the PHMSA spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in travel expenses for industry events. The amount of money the agency spent on travel expenses related to pipeline incidents was about $100 million less than that.

In addition, 3,000 staff days were “wasted” when large delegations went to 850 events and conferences, said PEER, which includes local, state and federal environmental professionals.

The people in places like Mayflower, Arkansas, and Tioga, North Dakota, should find this type of behavior unforgivable. But it’s another symptom of America’s addiction to oil. This week, some climate change activists said that while it’s important to fight the Keystone XL project, we’ve reached the point where we need to oppose all new fossil fuel projects. That’s a very radical solution, but I will say this: we need to learn to safely handle the oil we have.

To read about recent pipeline spills from Midwest Energy News, please check out:

For more from the International Business Times about the behavior of pipeline regulators, please go to:

Read about what’s next for climate activists:

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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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