“Keystone Kops”: Major pipeline spills raise serious questions about safety of Keystone XL project


For a lot of American environmentalists, the Keystone XL pipeline project was a major wakeup call about the rising, out-of-control power of Big Oil in this country, stretching all the way to the corridors of power in Washington. The proposal called for a 2,147-mile pipeline that would run from the booming oil-sands region of western Canada and ultimately connect all the way to the Gulf Coast. Supporters claim that the project would boost the energy industry in North America and create 20,000 American jobs. But the critics — and there are many — say the jobs numbers are grossly inflated and don’t outweigh the major threats to the environmental that are posed by the Keystone project. For one thing, the oil that is pulled from the Canadian tar sands is an expensive, dirty fuel that will contribute to global warming.

But an even more powerful argument against the Keystone XL plan is the issue of pipeline safety. The initial plan calls for the pipeline to cross the Sandhills in Nebraska, a critical wetlands, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves some two million people in eight states as well as many farms. So just one major accident would be catastrophic. Big Oil has tried to assure Congress, the Obama administration and the American people that the pipeline will be 100 percent safe, and that there’s no risk of an accident. But if the industry’s track record is any kind of guide, there’s no reason believe that. Check out this report from Alberta, the heart of the Canadian oil belt:

TORONTO, Canada — Three oil spills in a month isn’t the track record Alberta wanted while peddling a major tar sands pipeline to Americans.

The spills have the provincial government and the oil industry scrambling to control the damage to both the environment and their credibility.

As many as 400,000 gallons of oil have leaked in three separate incidents from the end of May to the end of June. The worst has been a pipeline rupture near Sundre in central Alberta in mid-June, when some 132,000 gallons spilled into the Red Deer River and tainted a reservoir that provides drinking water to thousands of people.

The spills come as the Alberta and federal governments are lobbying for US approval of the KeystoneXL pipeline, which would transport up to 900,000 more barrels of Alberta’s tar sands oil a day to US refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Both governments are also pushing to build the Northern Gateway pipeline. That would bring tar sands oil to a proposed supertanker port on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, and from there to markets in Asia and the United States. The pipeline would be built by Enbridge, which owns a pumping station where one of the Alberta spills occurred.

Indeed, the record shows there are hundreds of such pipeline failures in Alberta in a given year, although thankfully most are not as bad as these three recent ones. Nonetheless, the overall picture is that of a dangerous and poorly regulated industry. Meanwhile, if the name Enbridge sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve read of its pipeline catastrophe here in the United States. In 2010, more than 20,000 gallons of oil spilled from its pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan:

Deborah Hersman, chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said on Tuesday that Enbridge’s employees “performed like Keystone Kops” after a complete breakdown in safety measures allowed the pipeline to spill crude unchecked for 17 hours.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to get the double meaning of “Keystone Kops.” Here’s more of what the NTSB had to say about Enbridge’s screwups:

The NTSB found that Enbridge failed to accurately assess the integrity of the pipeline, including analyzing cracks that required repair, and its employees failed to follow procedures.

“Following the first alarm, Enbridge controllers restarted Line 6B twice, pumping an additional 683,000 gallons of crude oil, or 81 percent of the total amount spilled, through the ruptured pipeline,” the agency said.

The board said there was a “culture of deviance” at Enbridge where personnel were not adhering to approved procedures and protocols.

A culture of deviance, indeed. Look, folks, this is the typical M.O. of Big Oil. In the theoretical world, all of their pipelines, their drilling procedures and their disposal methods have a perfect, 100-percent safety record. But in the real world, its safety record and wanton disregard for the environment is appalling. This is, in fact, the culture of deviance that killed 11 people and destroyed the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon spill, that is poisoning the drinking water of the Marcellus Shale with its poor fracking techniques, and that used to put radioactive drilling pipe in kids’ playgrounds. And now these “Keystone Kops” want to build a pipeline across one of America’s most sensitive aquifers? I don’t think so. You wouldn’t buy a title to the Brooklyn Bridge off some guy in the street; don’t buy Big Oil’s bogus claims about the Keystone XL pipeline, either.

Here is the full report on the Alberta oil spills: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/after-3-pipeline-spills-totaling-400000-gallons-albertas-reputation-tarnished

To read about the NTSB findings about the Enbridge spill in Michigan, go to: http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/07/11/enbridge-spill-idINL2E8IBE1Y20120711

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – 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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