ExxonMobil Pipeline Leak: Recurring Themes of Oil Industry Recklessness


Big Oil claimed another environmental victim last week, as more than 40,000 gallons of sweet crude from a ruptured pipeline spewed into Montana’s pristine Yellowstone River. The 700-mile waterway – critical to farm irrigation and beloved for its superb trout fishing – runs through one of America’s most popular summer vacation destinations, Yellowstone National Park. The river drops over the glorious upper and lower falls at the head of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and surges across the northern Great Plains past the city of Billings. The river ends its rumbling journey when it flows into the mighty Missouri near Buford, North Dakota just upstream from the picturesque Lake Sakakawea.

That impressive resumé and seemingly untouchable location and status failed to shield the Yellowstone River from the 1,000 barrels of oil (42,000 gallons) that leaked directly into its waters from a ruptured 55-mile ExxonMobil pipeline on July 1. it seems Big Oil does not discriminate when it comes to polluting the American landscape – apparently any of our prized natural resources is fair game.

The Yellowstone spill re-awakens many of the painful memories, frustrations and outrages of last year’s BP disaster – which is still, to this day, wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast. There’s a handful of recurring themes. None of them reassuring. All of them pointing to reckless behavior on the part of the responsible party, in this case, ExxonMobil (though it would be very easy to plugin any oil company, say BP for example, to this disturbing scenario).

ExxonMobil lied about details surrounding the spill. Company officials initially claimed it had taken “at most” 30 minutes to seal the 12-inch diameter pipeline after the leak began near the town of Laurel. Later, officials adjusted the shutdown time to only six minutes. Both of those statements turned out to be untrue. From a July 6 Associated Press report:

Documents from the Department of Transportation show it took Exxon Mobil almost an hour to fully seal the pipeline after the accident – nearly twice as long as it had publicly disclosed. It was not immediately clear if the change could alter the estimate of crude released into a river famous for its fishing and vital to farmers for irrigation.

Speaking of estimating the amount of crude released, does anybody remember how many times BP “adjusted” its flow rates as crude spewed from its runaway Macondo Well? I do. On April 24, it was 1,000 barrels a day (before underwater video was made available to federal officials). By May 27, that estimate had been “adjusted” to between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day. By June 10, it was 25,000 to 30,000 barrels. On June 19, it topped out at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. In the end, BP “misjudged” the flow by a mere 59,000 barrels a day.

Does that series of “adjustments” seem like BP was being forthright? We’re seeing the same lack of truthfulness in Montana with ExxonMobil. From Gov. Schweitzer: “The best thing they could do at this point is be completely honest. It is clear that their veracity has not been 100 percent to this point.”

ExxonMobil claimed there was no problem with the integrity of the pipeline. Officials from the town of Laurel pressed ExxonMobil representatives on the integrity of its “Silvertip” pipeline as flood waters rose, but were told the line was perfectly safe. Although the cause of the leak remains under investigation, experts on the scene believe the surging Yellowstone eroded the riverbed to the point where the pipeline was exposed to heavy debris coursing down river. From the July 6 Associated Press article:

Exxon Mobil Co. reassured concerned regulators that an oil pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River was buried deep enough and not in danger just a month before it broke in a flood and spewed an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude into the waterway.

Today, pipelines are buried as deep as 25 feet beneath bodies of water. ExxonMobil’s line was sunk just 8 feet below the Yellowstone riverbed – a strong indication that the oil industry needs to update its aging pipeline infrastructure. But most of us realize that will never happen unless the industry is compelled to do so. To that end, regulators must conduct an immediate and comprehensive review of the integrity of all pipelines in the United States, and ensure corrective action takes place.

Before the crippled Macondo Well leaked 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP assured us that deep-water drilling was safe. According to the responsible parties in the BP disaster, the “blowout preventer” was the fail safe against any sort of catastrophic leak – until it wasn’t. The same rule applies to ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline: It’s buried deep enough, until it’s not.

ExxonMobil has been criticized for its response to the spill. According to a July 5 CNN report, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has criticized “the speed and comprehensiveness” of the spill response. Severe flooding in the area has made cleanup efforts difficult, leading Gov. Schweitzer to declare a state of emergency July 5 in order to get a handle on the spill as the impacted area continues to expand. According to the AP report:

…[ExxonMobil] acknowledged under political pressure that the leak’s impact could extend far beyond a 10-mile stretch of the river it initially said was the most affected area. The company had earlier downplayed government officials’ assertions that damage was spread over dozens of miles.

The latest information is that oil has been sighted as far away as 240 miles from the leak site, and officials are concerned that flood waters could push the oil into more populated areas and severely damage the river’s fisheries. So much for ExxonMobil’s assertions of a 10-mile impact area.

Although company officials continue to downplay the impact of the oil, pretty much everybody else close to the spill is concerned about long-term effects. Gov. Schweitzer: “You cannot dump (that much oil) into a pristine trout stream without causing damage to the fisheries.”

And this from the July 5 CNN report:

Besides the fish, the area is home to Canada geese, ducks, ospreys, otters and bald eagles, said Charles Preston, an ecologist and conservation biologist who heads the Draper Museum of Natural History. The birds, in particular, might die directly or indirectly as they go after fish. Long term, and depending on factors like the quantity and nature of the leaked oil, toxins may kill critical insects, which in turn could have a trickle-down effect on the multimillion-dollar fishing industry, he said.

“It could take years to really understand the impact of the spill,” Preston said.

As for the BP spill, company officials repeatedly and emphatically downplayed how much oil was actually in the water as well as its short- and long-term effects. At the same time, independent researchers claimed the spill’s impacts would be profound and far-reaching. We all remember the now-disgraced “vast majority of the oil is gone” declaration in early August 2010 from President Obama’s former energy adviser Carol Browner (she was subsequently forced out of her job). In response to that claim, University of Georgia marine sciences Professor Samantha Joye said this: “I find it very hard to believe, impossible actually, that they have three-quarters of the oil accounted for.” Impossible indeed.

We hear echoes of what ecologist Charles Preston is saying about the Yellowstone spill in commentary on the BP disaster. “After a hurricane, there is an ‘all clear’ that is sounded, and we begin the recovery process,” said University of Southern Alabama Professor Steven Picou. “But after a technological disaster, there is no all-clear. And the question becomes, how can we inventory the damage when it will be decades before we know the full extent?”

That assertion flies in the face of what we are hearing from BP officials who continue to assure us that the Gulf of Mexico will be fully recovered by the end of 2012. Don’t hold your breath, because it ain’t going to happen. Lest we forget, the herring fishery in Alaska – the site of another infamous ExxonMobil spill – has not recovered some 20 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound.

What can we expect to hear next from ExxonMobil? The exact same thing we’ve been hearing from BP: It wasn’t that bad…we dodged a bullet. And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Here’s the link to the AP report: http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Exxon-claimed-failed-Mont-pipe-12-ft-under-river-1452327.php

Read the CNN report here: http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/07/05/montana.oil.spill/index.html?iref=allsearch

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

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

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This