The weekend oil spill by ExxonMobil into Yellowstone River gives environmentalists more ammunition in their long-running battle against granting the oil industry increased access to US oil resources.
While only the final investigation will prove whether Exxon failed to do some maintenance or take other measures that could have prevented the spill, one thing is certain: the US continues to have an unacceptable number of spills on both oil and natural gas pipelines.
Indeed, one of the key reasons raised by environmentalists to block the Keystone XL pipeline from bringing oil sands fuel from Canada’s tar sands across the US to Texas is the high number of spills on the first stage of that pipeline – the Keystone - in its first year of operation. The company says they are not significant. And Exxon might well be able to contain this spill so that it is not a massive environmental disaster.
But why does it seem regulators tend to wait until disaster strikes before taking appropriate action? There had long been signs that the Gulf of Mexico offshore was not being sufficiently regulated, yet the issue of permits continued at a rapid pace until Macondo struck.
The bottom line is that the US has had a number of red flags this past year on the need to improve pipeline safety. Perhaps the biggest of these was the fatal explosion of a gas pipeline in a California residential area.
But, less than a year later, Exxon is the latest to suffer a spill. Its reaction:
No cause has been identified for the release of oil from the pipeline, which met all regulatory requirements and has undergone inspection most recently in December. A field audit of the pipeline’s integrity management program was undertaken by US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in June.
So if regulators just inspected the pipeline, the question is whether they missed something?
Ray LaHood, US secretary of transportation, late last year sent Congress proposed legislation to provide stronger oversight of the nation’s pipelines and increased penalties for violations of pipeline safety rules.
Congressman Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in June signalled his committment to updating and improving US pipeline safety:
Pipeline safety is a serious matter of protecting human life and our environment. Our nation’s nearly half a million miles of pipeline infrastructure play a critical role in delivering vital energy supplies to southwest Michigan and the rest of the country. Disasters like last summer’s Enbridge pipeline rupture underscore the unacceptable costs of failure and the need for meaningful updates to our current pipeline safety laws.
Representative Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called on Tuesday for investigative hearings to be held into the Exxon spill and related safety and environmental issues:
ExxonMobil has turned parts of the Yellowstone River black with their spilled oil. Just as BP was held to account for their accident in the Gulf of Mexico, ExxonMobil should appear before Congress so that we can examine the holes in oil pipeline safety that led to this incident and how we might prevent another spill in the future. Several aspects of pipeline safety regulations may need review based on this disaster.
Mr Markey noted that Exxon had said that the pipeline had been examined within the five-year increments as required by law. He said that timeline may need to be reduced, in light of this accident and the others over the last few years.
On top of that, higher penalties would help pay for better enforcement. Surely, given all its budget issues, Congress can see the benefit of this?