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Yellowstone Spill and the Trouble with Pipelines

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Oiled area of the Yellowstone River in July. Photograph by Karen Nelson / USFWS

Nearly two months after a rupture at ExxonMobil’s Silvertip oil pipeline spilled at least 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, there is no end in sight to the cleanup efforts. The company recently said that the process has been more difficult than expected, and estimated that cleanup would continue for several months beyond the initial completion target of early September.

According to the EPA, more than 1,000 people are now involved in cleaning up the spill, an effort that will cost a reported $42.6 million. (The spilled oil itself was valued at $100,000).

Meanwhile, the state of Montana has given ExxonMobil the go-ahead to replace the broken pipeline at 40 feet beneath the riverbed, rather than its original depth of five feet.

Energy transportation can be a dangerous, dirty business. In 2010, pipeline spills and explosions killed 22 people, released 173,103 barrels of petroleum into the environment, and caused nearly a billion dollars in damage in the United States. Pipelines transporting natural gas and hazardous liquids (a catch-all term including crude oil) are susceptible to failure from many sources, both man-made and natural. America’s existing pipelines could circle the Earth 100 times. Do the economic benefits of building even more pipelines outweigh the potential costs?

With increasing production from Canadian oil sands and from natural gas trapped in shale formations throughout the U.S. and Canada, energy companies have turned to building new pipelines as a way of increasing profits. However, as demonstrated by the Silvertip spill, these pipelines can have unintended costs. They put vast stretches of land, much of it otherwise pristine wilderness, at increased risk of a spill. That the Silvertip Pipeline’s initial depth of five feet exceeded U.S. burial regulations, yet still failed, calls into question the efficacy of current safety requirements. Given the difficulty of monitoring and regulating U.S. pipelines, the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project–set to run from Canada to Texas–naturally has met with opposition from groups who fear water pollution and other ill effects.

Additionally, plans to export natural gas freed by the controversial fracking method could increase domestic energy prices. Because the North American energy market is largely insulated from the global market, soaring demand in Asia largely has not affected natural gas prices. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals on the West Coast, fed by new pipelines, promise significant profits for energy companies at the cost of increased prices at home. This has led a unique coalition of environmental activists, landowners, local utilities, farmers, and industrial energy users to oppose plans for two LNG terminals on the Oregon Coast.

While pipelines can have significant economic benefits, they pose problems that call into question the wisdom of their continued construction. At a minimum, the United States must reexamine its safety standards to mitigate the risk of future pipeline accidents. In the end, the difficulties associated with energy transportation underscore the necessity of transitioning away from dependence on fossil fuels. Such a transition may be too late for broken pipelines like the Silvertip, but as the controversy over Keystone XL shows, huge decisions lie ahead regarding American energy infrastructure.