If another major pipeline spill doesn’t convince them to kill Keystone XL, nothing will


When will America ever learn?

Industry and some government officials — helped sometimes by mixed signals from the Obama administration — continue to push for the Keystone XL pipeline to run across some of the major drinking-water sources of the American Midwest, despite the risk of a catastrophc spill. And they assure us that this Keystone pipeline will be different, that it will come with the latest state-of-the-art safety equipment and rapid response that will prevent an inland Deepwater Horizon. But if that’s the case, why can’t Big Oil and Gas run a pipeline safely today?

In fact, the New York Times reported last year that there have been about 100 major pipeline spills in the United States every year, a number that has not changed considerably over the last two decades. That’s been compounded by atrocious oversight by government regulators:

The little-known federal agency charged with monitoring the system and enforcing safety measures — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves, according to federal reports, an examination of agency data and interviews with safety experts.

They portray an agency that rarely levies fines and is not active enough in policing the aging labyrinth of pipelines, which has suffered thousands of significant hazardous liquid spills over the past two decades.

One of the major pipeline operators, and one of the most troubled, is Enbridge. In July 2010, a rupture released about 20,000 barrels of oil into southern Michigan waters, centered on the Kalamazoo River. That episode sparked outrage, and now there’s been a major incident in Wisconsin this summer, also linked to Enbridge. The company’s  318,000 barrel per day Line 14, which carries Canadian crude to refiners in the Midwest, had to be shut down after spilling more than 1,000 barrels of crude oil in the Badger State.

Here’s the latest.

The U.S. pipeline regulator raised pressure on Enbridge Inc on Thursday over the latest spill on its U.S. oil pipeline network, demanding that it submit a plan to improve the safety of the entire 1,900 mile system before restarting a key Midwest line.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it added new conditions to this week’s corrective action order for the restart of Line 14 to address failures on that pipeline as well as a string of others in recent years on its U.S. system, part of the world’s longest network for transporting oil and petroleum products.

Enbridge responded immediately, saying it would submit the new plan by day’s end and that many of the improvements sought on the U.S. system were already under way. But regulators who have made no secret of their dismay and anger over a series of recent leaks on Enbridge lines must still approve the plan.

“PHMSA has communicated its longstanding concerns about this pattern of failures with (Enbridge) over the past several years,” PHMSA wrote in the amendment to its order. “Given the nature, circumstances, and gravity of this pattern of accidents, additional corrective measures are warranted.”

This situation is a travesty. America needs to do a lot more to get the thousands of miles of pipeline that we have under control — not approve massive new ones like Keystone XL. As noted in this space before, there’s no good environmental reason to approve the Keystone project; one spill could devastate the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the source of drinking water for some two million people in eight states. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand the risks — just look at what has already happened in Michigan and Wisconsin.

To read the New York Times article on shoddy pipeline regulation, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/10/business/energy-environment/agency-struggles-to-safeguard-pipeline-system.html

To check out the latest on Enbridge’s pipeline woes, please read: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/sns-rt-us-enbridgebre8711rk-20120802,0,7850484.story

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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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