Why build a new pipeline when we can’t stop the old ones from blowing up?


The irony is almost too much to bear. This week, Senate Republicans voted to approve a bill to President Obama’s desk that would mandate the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — the project that would transport the thick, dirty oil harvested from the tar sands of western Canada across the American prairie to ports and refineries on the Gulf Coast. Opponents are hoping that the president will veto the bill — and that his State Department won’t grant a permit through the existing permit process — for two broad reasons. Some opponents are looking at the Big Picture: That nixing the Keystone project makes a powerful statement about weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and taking climate change seriously. Then there’s the smaller frame: There’s no guarantees the pipeline won’t leak — or worse — and pollute U.S. drinking water.

But in working overtime to get the Keystone bill passed, Congress seems clueless about what is happening with the real-world pipelines that already exist in the American heartland. These conveyances of crude oil — old ones, new ones, rusty ones, sleek ones — as well as ones that carry toxic and radioactive fracking wastes are leaking and blowing up, sending flames shooting into the air and overwhelming rural creeks with pollution. Here’s the latest outrage:

On Monday morning another gas pipeline exploded, marking the fourth extreme accident involving a U.S. pipeline just this month.

The gas pipeline in Brooke County, West Virginia, is owned by Enterprise Products LP.  Several eye witnesses stated all they could see was a massive fireball rocketing hundreds of feet in the air.  One witness told emergency dispatchers that the explosion melted siding off of one home and damaged at least one power line.  Enterprise Products is conducting an investigation to find the cause of the explosion.

This explosion is the fourth pipeline incident that has made headlines this month.  Earlier in the month, a gas pipeline in Mississippi operated by GulfSouth Pipeline burst into flames, causing a smoke plume so large it registered on National Weather Service radar screens. On January 17th, a pipeline owned by Bridger Pipeline LLC in Montana spilled an estimated 30,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.  The spill left thousands of people living in Montana without consumable tap water.  Days later, three million gallons of saltwater drilling waste spilled from a North Dakota pipeline.  The spill was deemed North Dakota’s largest pollutant release into the environment since the beginning of the oil boom.

To the oil aficionados, I’m sure these accidents are all a coincidence. The Keystone XL advocates say the new pipeline will be a state-of-the-art production, impervious to leaks. But they said the same thing about some of the pipelines that failed this month. And this is even more unsettling: Evidence continues to mount that Big Oil simply isn’t up to the job of maintaining its pipelines:

Three powerful accidents in recent years show systemic weaknesses in the way natural gas providers maintain the largest pipelines in their networks, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday as it issued more than two dozen safety recommendations. The agency said that since 2003, when tighter rules were issued, the number of pipeline accidents that involve injuries or damage to property had leveled off. Since then, the regulators said, state-regulated pipelines have had a 27 percent higher incident rate than federally regulated pipelines. Three accidents since 2010, in California, Florida and West Virginia, illustrate the problems, namely that gas companies failed to conduct inspections or tests that might have revealed weaknesses. Nearly 300,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines crisscross the United States.

And yet we’ve seen in the past that federal regulators are often overmatched as well. It’s increasingly clear that there’s no need for the Keystone XL pipeline to be built. The oil is not needed, and the risks of a disaster are just too great. Congress — which is on the brink of final passage — should abandon this foolish crusade, and the president must reject it if they don’t.

You can read more about my past cases battling Big Oil in poor Southern communities in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/Crude-Justice.html

For more information about the recent spate of pipeline accidents, please read: http://bakken.com/news/id/231154/boom-goes-pipeline/

Check out how the oil companies aren’t doing their job to keep pipelines safely maintained: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/business/energy-environment/agency-cites-weaknesses-in-gas-pipeline-regulation.html?_r=0

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • In the mid 1980’s, a natural gas pipeline near Harley Dome (Cisco), Utah, had a “jacketed round” seemingly intentionally, shot through it from a small raised mesa nearby. Six gas wells which fed the line, had to be shut down, then air blown through the line, before a patch could be welded over it, to seal the leak[s] (the jacketed round went through both sides of the pipeline, without igniting the gas). Crews which had to shut down those wells had to go in either on horseback and/or by helicopter. The mesa noted, and the pipeline abutted a nearby road used by a cattle company. Nearest buildings were about 4-5 miles away. The surrounding desert area is barren, and was leased to the cattle company, and an adjacent sheep farmer by Bureau of Land Management, north of I-70, and east of the Ute Indian Reservation (in “Nash Wash”). To my knowledge, no one was ever charged with having done this. I had occasion to visit the area a few weeks or so, after it happened. If offer this should similar events, or incidents occur.

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