Michigan Oil Spill: Are pipelines really the safer option?

In the 100 days since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the largest oil spill in US history, Big Oil and its supporters have been doing everything in their public relations power to convey the impression that what happened in the Gulf on April 20 was a one-off event, a freak accident rather than a symptom of a larger problem with our dependence on oil.    It was a fluke, an Act of God, a renegade company run amok, a “plane crash” event that ought not shut down air travel – anything but a reflection of the consistently high accident rate of offshore drilling that ought to give us pause. 

Meanwhile, the proponents of Canadian tar sands crude – a spectacularly dirty and destructive source of oil being extracted from under the forests of northern Alberta  – were happy to paint the Gulf spill as symptomatic of larger problems with offshore drilling.  However, they have vigorously touted the tar sands crude, brought to the US via a network of overland pipelines, as a safer alternative.  

But accidents speak louder than words. Here in the real world, where workers still desperately struggle to keep the industry’s “commitment to safety” from fouling marshes and beaches on the Gulf Coast, Big Oil has marked the 100th day since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe with a pipeline spill of 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan.  With a mix of horror and déjà vu, we watch as local communities are subjected to the toxic fumes of an evaporating oil slick, and cleanup crews struggle to rescue oiled wildlife

While individual accidents may have random causes, a continuing series of accidents is a pattern of danger. That pattern has clearly emerged in the oil industry track record – not only for offshore drilling, but for the entire pipeline network supporting the oil industry.   Pipeline spills, of one sort or another, are alarmingly common, as documented in this damning report from the National Wildlife Federation.  Not only have hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude been spilled in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in the last decade, but there have been numerous pipeline spills – smaller but still significant – right here in the Midwest:  for example 93,000 gallons of gasoline leaked onto an Michigan farm earlier this year;  100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Nemadji River in Wisconsin, a tributary of Lake Superior, in 2003; 252,000 gallons of crude oil into a March near Cohasset, Minnesota in 2002, and 162,500 gallons of oil in a Kansas river in 2001.  

Clearly, the company running the pipeline that spilled into the Kalamazoo River, Enbridge, has a long and illustrious track record of incompetence.  They were warned that there were problems with the pipeline that spilled this week in Michigan and according to a 2010 report from the Polaris Institute,

Between 1999 and 2008, across all of Enbridge’s operations there were 610 spills that released close to 132,000 barrels [5.5 million gallons] of hydrocarbons into the environment. This amounts to approximately half of the oil that spilled from the oil tanker the Exxon Valdez after it struck a rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1988.

And little more need be said about BP’s own record of spill catastrophe.  Aside from the Gulf spill, several of the Prudhoe Bay spills, and the Michigan and Kansas spills mentioned above, involved poorly-maintained BP pipelines

But the real issue is not simply the recklessness of these two bumbling companies.   It is the fact that our country is right now expanding its network of oil pipelines on the false assumption that, being onshore and above ground, they are somehow safe.  The Canadian tar sands crude is being brought to the US through an extensive network of pipelines, many of them Enbridge pipelines, and most of them lead directly to or through the Midwest and its sensitive water resources. The University of Toronto called this web of pipelines a “pollution delivery system” for the Great Lakes . TransCanada, another Canadian pipeline company completedthe Keystone pipeline this year, running from Alberta through the Plains and Midwest and terminating in eastern Illinois, notwithstanding warnings from environmentalists that pipleline spills were inevitable. Sure enough, the Keystone pipeline suffered a spill incident almost as soon as it commenced operation.  Now, TransCanada is seeking to build Keystone XL, another pipeline that runs from Alberta all the way  down to the Gulf coast – once again, over strong concerns regarding risks of pipeline corrosion and spills into sensitive water resources.  (The US EPA has echoed some of these concerns in its comments on the proposal.)

There is no getting around the fact that oil is dangerous, toxic, and almost certain to foul our environment – causing injury and death to humans and animals -- on a regular basis.  BP and Enbridge should both suffer severe consequences for their recklessness.  And we could perhaps make a modest dent in the frequency of accidents in the future with better safety regulation.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  The only way to truly prevent incidents like these recent spills, and to put an end to the heartbreaking parade of black dripping birds and poisoned water is to stop sacrificing our rivers, lakes, and oceans in service of our oil addiction.  This makes the Michigan spill the latest reminder that we desperately need action in DC on a comprehensive energy and climate bill that would  set up a mechanism to help curb that addiction.