Pipeline politics


updated 7/13/2011

The Yellowstone River oil spill is a stark reminder of something we often forget: oil spills aren't just for coastal folks.

In case you missed the news, here's what happened: On July 1, the Silvertip pipeline, an underground conduit for ExxonMobil, split open, spewing some 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Mont.

The breadth and depth of the impacts aren't yet clear, but they can't be good. Oil has been spotted as far as 240 miles downstream of the spill, and closer to the accident oil slicks shroud wetlands, crops and riparian habitat.

It's not the first time dysfunctional pipelines have wreaked inland havoc. Last year saw a spate of spills. In July, more than 1 million gallons of oil gushed into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. More than 250,000 gallons leaked from a pipeline in the Chicago suburbs last fall. And an underground rupture spilled 21,000 gallons into Utah's Jordan River and its tributaries, but luckily didn't reach the Great Salt Lake. 

These spills don't make the impression on our collective memory that massive gushers like Exxon-Valdez or last year's Gulf spill do. But they're much more common, and potentially deeply insidious.

That's a point opponents of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline -- which would carry up to 900,000 gallons of unconventional crude a day from Canada's tar sands to U.S. refineries -- have strained to impress on regulators as they decide whether to approve its construction.

The Yellowstone spill has further stoked the highly contentious and drawn-out debate over Keystone XL. National environmental groups oppose the pipeline primarily for what it carries: tar sands crude, which is among the dirtiest of dirty fossil fuels. Local opposition focuses more on the pipeline's path, which would cross the Yellowstone River and the Ogallala Aquifer on its way to the Gulf Coast. The vast, shallow aquifer is an ecological and agricultural lynchpin for the Plains states, and the source of drinking water for some 2 million people. In Nebraska's Sandhills, soils are especially porous and the water table especially high, which according to the Groundwater Blog means "a leaking pipe -- especially a buried one -- would cause instant and widespread damage to the quality of the groundwater. The pollution plume would spread indefinitely and the threat would grow as the plume traveled."

Opponents argue that the proposal doesn't do enough to minimize these risks. And a new University of Nebraska study bolsters their case, concluding that TransCanada's risk assessment for spills along the pipeline is vastly understated.

Detractors are hoping to leverage the Yellowstone spill to force Keystone XL's backers to agree to more stringent safety requirements, according to Greenwire: "Among those proposed ... conditions are the submission of a wide-ranging emergency response plan for public review; a promise to cover the costs of restoring water supplies in case of contamination during the construction or operation of the XL line; and the engagement of soil scientists to help restore land disturbed by the pipeline's construction to its original condition."

The states the pipeline passes through could require these things if the State Department -- responsible for permitting since Keystone XL crosses an international boundary -- opts to approve its construction. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to announce the department's decision by the end of the year.

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photo: Yellowstone River near Belfry, Mont. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service - Northern Region. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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