“Secret” ND spill another reminder of Keystone XL risk


I’ve written here in the past that there are several very good — and very important — reasons for President Obama to oppose the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. That’s the project that would take dirty tar sands oil from once-pristine corners of western Canada, ship it by pipeline across major U.S. aquifers and rivers, and then transport this carbon-intensive fuel to burn in foreign markets. Much of the recent opposition to the Keystone XL has focused on the climate-change issue and it’s understandable why — the wasteful amount of energy that must be expended to separate the thick, viscous oil from its sandy home makes Canada’s tar sands the epicenter of North America’s pathological addition to oil.

But at first, the biggest objection to the Keystone XL project was more basic — that Big Oil and Gas have done a lousy job on pipeline safety in recent years, and the undermanned federal government (you know, the one that’s currently shut down altogether) has done an equally lousy job in regulating them. In just the last couple of years, we’ve seen environmentally destructive pipelines spills polluting rivers and other natural resources in Michigan, in Montana, and in Arkansas where residents are still coping with the aftermath of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline fiasco.

How badly are we monitoring our pipelines?

When a pipeline rupture sent more than 20,000 barrels of crude spewing across a North Dakota wheat field, it took nearly two weeks for officials to tell the public about it.

The break in a Tesoro Corp. pipeline happened in a remote area, and officials say no water was contaminated or wildlife hurt. But environmentalists are skeptical and say it’s an example of a boom industry operating too cozily with state regulators.

“It shows an attitude of our current state government and what they think of the public,” said Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental-minded landowner group with more than 700 members in North Dakota. “It’s definitely worrisome. There is a pattern in current state government to not involve the public.”

The North Dakota Health Department was told about the spill on Sept. 29, after a farmer whose combine’s tires were coated in crude discovered oil spewing and gurgling from the ground. Although the state initially thought just 750 barrels of oil was involved, it turned out to be one of the largest spills in North Dakota history — an estimated 20,600 barrels over 7.3 acres of land, or about the size of seven football fields.

Amazingly, North Dakota health officials didn’t say anything about this for 11 days — not until a reporter for the Associated Press called to ask about it. They claimed they thought the spill was too small. Even the governor of this small prairie state didn’t know about what happened for days.

As Philip Radford, the executive director of the environmental group Greenpeace, notes, spills like this one in North Dakota are a direct consequence of our increasing addiction to extreme oil:

North Dakota and Bakken have become coveted areas for oil executives bent on getting the most extreme and remote fossil fuels out of the ground now that the “easy” reserves are on the decline. As we saw in Mayflower, Arkansas earlier this year, pipelines spill, and so as long as we let oil companies keep us locked into these forms of extreme fossil fuels, we’ll continue to see spills like these.

Now, Big Oil and Gas wants America to trust them on the Keystone XL project — even though it will pass directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, source of drinking water for more than 2 million people, at a time when Washington says it already doesn’t have enough inspectors for the pipelines that are currently online. It’s time for somebody to yell, “Stop!” Right now, the only safe way to handle the tar sands oil from Canada is not to handle it at all. 

 To read the Associated Press coverage of the North Dakota oil spill, please check out: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/farmer-finds-oil-spill-harvesting-wheat-20538641

For more of the perspective of Greenpeace executive director Philip Radford, please read: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-radford/photos-harvesting-one-of_b_4097110.html

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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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