Exxon's Yellowstone Oil Spill Shows Pipeline Risks

The environmental disaster that began unfolding last week when an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured in Montana and spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River highlights the serious environmental risks associated with the oil industry's infrastructure -- and foreshadows the problems likely to arise if that infrastructure spreads to other states that are now considering offshore drilling.

The Houston-based oil giant reports that more than 280 personnel are now involved in cleaning up the spilled oil, which has contaminated farms and other properties along the scenic waterway.

The spill occurred when Exxon's Silvertip pipeline buried six feet below the river sprung a leak last Friday. Though the cause of the leak is not yet known, Eastern Montana got record rainfall last month, and some local officials have raised the possibility that the surging water exposed the pipeline, which in turn could have been damaged by debris.

But there have been problems along the Silvertip before. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees oil pipelines, notified Exxon last July of seven potential safety violations on the Silvertip, with two of the warnings citing problems with the company's emergency response and pipeline corrosion training, CBS News reports. In May, the Silvertip was shut down due to concerns over rising waters, but Exxon restarted the line a day later after deciding the risk was low.

And the Silvertip is not the only Exxon pipeline that's had problems in Montana. Exxon's Yellowstone Pipeline, which carries oil from the refineries in Billings to Idaho and Washington state, has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in its 55 years of operation, reports the Natural Resources Defense Council. That pipeline has spilled oil at least 71 times on the Flathead Indian Reservation alone, contaminating tribal hunting and fishing grounds.

There have been other problems with U.S. oil pipelines in recent months. In January, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that carries oil from Alaska's North Slope to the port of Valdez was temporarily shut down after it sprung a leak. In May, U.S. regulators temporarily shut down TransCanada's Keystone pipeline that carries oil from the province of Alberta to Oklahoma following a series of leaks. That pipeline only began operating in June 2010.

And as Facing South reported in our recent investigation on the BP oil spill in the Gulf, pipeline leaks are a chronic problem in Louisiana, the nation's fourth-biggest oil-producing state. Research by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental advocacy group, found that in the year before the BP disaster there were a total of 3,600 oil spills in the state -- and many of those spills involved pipelines running through ecologically sensitive coastal wetlands.

This week Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called for investigative hearings on the Montana pipeline spill as well as on the larger issues surrounding pipeline safety. Noting that under current law pipelines must be inspected only once every five years, he suggested that time frame might need to be reduced. He also pointed out that both the Silvertip and the Trans Alaska pipeline were encased in cement, which interferes with inspections.

"Given the recent history of pipeline spills and aging infrastructure, the oil industry should be willing to inspect their pipelines more often and more thoroughly," Markey said.

The Yellowstone spill comes as the Obama administration is reviewing TransCanada's permit application for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would carry Canadian oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries. Environmentalists have raised concerns about that project's impact on wildlife and water supplies. The pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies about 30 percent of the groundwater used for agricultural irrigation in the United States and provides drinking water to millions of residents of eight states including Texas.

The Montana disaster also comes as Southern states where offshore oil and gas drilling is now banned are considering opening up their waters for exploration -- a move that would bring spill-prone pipelines and other oil infrastructure into relatively pristine coastal ecosystems.

In 2009, the Florida House of Representatives approved a bill that would have allowed drilling in state waters off the Gulf Coast, but the measure died in the Senate. This year North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature approved a bill that directed Gov. Bev Perdue (D) to form an offshore energy compact with South Carolina and Virginia to advocate for offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the states' coasts. However, Perdue vetoed that bill last week, calling it an unconstitutional infringement on the governor's powers.

The effort to open up new areas of the U.S. to offshore drilling is often promoted as an economic boon. However, a report [pdf] released last year by Environment North Carolina found that the value of the tourism and fishing industries is three times larger than the value of any oil and gas production in the Eastern Gulf, four times larger in the Mid-Atlantic states and 20 times larger in the South Atlantic.

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