The Keystone XL pipeline is a bad idea. That isn’t news to anyone who cares about climate change, but it has become increasingly evident that climate change activists shouldn’t be the only worried ones. Anyone who cares about corporate responsibility, useless government, functioning media, or whether or not their backyard has oil seeping through it should also consider laying in front of a TransCanada bulldozer in Nebraska for a few days (or at least writing to their Congressional representative).
The past couple of weeks have shown that oil pipelines – especially bitumen pipelines – are bad news. The first example can be found in Mayflower, Arkansas. It was there that an Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying bitumen recently ruptured and sent thousands of gallons of the tar-like substance spilling through a suburban neighborhood. The exact amount of oil spilled is constantly changing, but is estimated to be near 100,000 gallons.
The aftermath showed clear trends of corporate irresponsibility and cozy government support that are more than worrying. First, Exxon itself seems to prefer to handle these situations like they are the Men in Black. It is not surprising that they push for secrecy, since their job is to make money, and a PR disaster certainly won’t help that goal. They quickly sent in their cleanup crews, which is all well and good (although the cleanup process is still going on, so it’s not a quick one), but they just as quickly moved to prevent any real story getting out. Exxon made good use of what is apparently their own personal government by getting the local sheriff’s office to post up around the neighborhood threatening journalists with arrests if they tried to get near the scene. Even more impressive – Exxon got the FAA to grant them a no-fly zone over the spill site that has only just been removed weeks later. The FAA unilaterally granted them power over the airspace of what was not even Exxon’s land and made any media requests for a flight go through Exxon.
But the government wasn’t done making the world stunningly easy for Exxon in the aftermath of their handmade disaster. The substance transported through the pipeline was not actually plain old oil, but bitumen, and therefore exempt from the tax that funds the Oil Spill Liability Fund. Exxon seems to have been able to take care of this spill themselves and not look like total jackasses, but it’s great to know that if there were ever a larger pipeline spill of material being transported from tar sands that a company couldn’t easily handle on its own, the company wouldn’t have had to pay into the fund to help clean it up. The cherry on top of this story is that Exxon Mobil was awarded the nonprofit National Safety Council’s Green Cross for Safety medal for their “comprehensive commitment to safety excellence” a couple days after the spill.
Around that same time, you may have noticed a nasty odor if you were in New Orleans. It turns out that one of Exxon’s refineries sprung a leak. The chemicals were possibly hydrogen sulfide and benzene (pro tip: don’t breathe in benzene, it gives you cancer), although it is still somewhat unclear. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it though, the Coast Guard reported, “We haven’t told the refinery to shut down because we haven’t any cause for a shutdown.” Some residents of the area reported breathing difficulties and other problems.
In case you thought it was only Exxon Mobil doing the spilling, Shell lost some oil out of a pipeline in Texas recently. It was far from a major spill, only amounting to about 60 barrels (although potentially as much as 700). The remarkable part about this spill was that Shell spokespeople specifically came out and said that there was no evidence of a leak. Well, there was. Somehow it took a few days for them to notice the few thousand gallons of black liquid flowing outside of their pipeline and correct their mistake. But not before that oil flowed into a nearby waterway and down towards the Gulf of Mexico. As the Shell people clearly know, if there’s anything that the Gulf could use a little more of, it’s crude oil on the open water.
A similar problem occurred in northern Ontario recently when a train carrying oil derailed. The company that owned the train, Canadian Pacific Railway, originally said only four barrels were spilled. The actual amount was about 400 barrels, or roughly 16,800 gallons.
This is the system we are entrusting 800 miles of Midwestern land with. Land that feeds the country and sits atop one of the largest and most vital aquifers in the U.S. is being left in the hands of these companies. The State Department’s environmental impact statement found no expected significant impact on the environment along the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department saw no possibility that a pipeline ten times as large as the Pegasus pipeline that filled an Arkansas neighborhood with oil could suffer a similar two-to-three inch gash anywhere along its 800 mile route and significantly impact the environment. They saw no way that an accident could happen.
Whether the government has been lulled into a sense of security by the National Safety Council’s Green Cross for Safety or was simply bought off, we may never know. But we can be damn sure that if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, we will see more of the same irresponsible behavior. Based off of the industry track record, a spill will probably occur. When it does, we can expect to see more of the same media manipulation, government cozying, and general lack of accountability that we have seen from the industry in the past.