Tar sands implicated in Yellowstone River pipeline spill

Exxon-Mobil has admitted that the Silver Tip pipeline which ruptured and spilled 42,000 gallons into the Yellowstone River was used to move tar sands crude. Until yesterday, the company’s position had been that the pipeline carried sweet, low sulfur crude that did not originate from Alberta. On Thursday, Exxon spokesman acknowledged that their previous statements had been incorrect. This revelation appears to have been news to everyone, including regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). This is yet another alarm calling for updated pipeline safety standards, more transparency, and better oversight by our regulators. Given all of the warnings, it would be irresponsible to move forward with Keystone XL until these measures are in place.

Now for the details. Exxon owns and operates the Silver Tip pipeline, which carries crude oil to Exxon’s refinery in Billings, Montana. In 2006, Exxon officials described a new tank farm that would allow the company to move tar sands crude on its Silver Tip pipeline to it refinery in Billings. At the time, it seemed that officials at Exxon-Mobil, Exxon’s refinery staff, and the operators of Exxon’s Silver Tip pipeline talked to the press about the fact that the pipeline would move tar sands. After five years, a pipeline spill and greater public awareness of the safety hazards presented by tar sands, Exxon staff must have forgotten they were piping and refining the stuff.

This tragedy continues to demonstrate the sad state of our pipeline safety regulations. During a hearing before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee yesterday, PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman told Congress that her agency had been questioning Exxon about the safety of the Silver Tip pipeline since October, 2010. Apparently regulators never asked what was in the pipeline. This isn’t as surprising as it may seem, as current pipeline safety regulations do not treat corrosive raw tar sands crude any differently than conventional oil.

Moreover, despite regulators concerns of flooding, riverbed erosion, and corrosion on the pipeline, PHMSA wasn’t able to act because Exxon didn’t appear to be violating pipeline safety regulations. Our regulators seem stuck in an absurd world where they can’t act until a pipeline breaks and a disaster happens. Needless to say, safety standards that work like this are not safe.

Tom Finch, PHMSA’s technical services director for its Western Regional office, recently asserted that tar sands may cause more wear and tear on pipelines. Despite these concerns, PHMSA Administrator Quarterman told Congress last month that 1) pipeline regulations were not designed for raw tar sands crude, 2) regulators had not yet evaluated what measures would be necessary to ensure that raw tar sands pipelines could be built and operated safely, and 3) PHMSA had not been involved in the environmental review for Keystone XL.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to rush forward plans to build TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Keystone XL would be twenty times larger than Exxon’s pipeline and would carry hot raw tar sands crude across nearly two thousand rivers and the Ogallala Aquifer.  Next week, the House of Representatives will consider a bill by Nebraska Representative Lee Terry that would make sure that a decision is made on Keystone XL before safety regulators can consider how it can be done safely.

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline stands to become a monument to reckless decision making that our grandchildren will not thank us for.

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