Yellowstone oil spill demonstrates deep problem with reactive pipeline safety regulators

Exxon-Mobil’s 42,000 gallon oil spill in the Yellowstone River reveals a troubling problem with the safety of the United States pipeline system. It may take years to realize the full extent of the long-term damage that this spill has caused to one of our nation’s last wild rivers. However, this spill is a clear warning that our pipeline safety regulations are not strong enough to provide adequate protection for sensitive resources like the Yellowstone River. This spill should be a wakeup call for the Obama administration as it considers a proposal to build Keystone XL, a far larger pipeline which would carry corrosive raw tar sands across the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

Several days after the Yellowstone spill, pipeline safety regulators at the Department of Transportation reacted by issuing Exxon-Mobil’s Silvertip pipeline a Corrective Action Order (CAO) which requires the company to make safety improvements to the pipeline before it can restart. In issuing the order, Secretary LaHood said “when companies are not living up to our safety standards, we will take action.”

Here’s the problem – Exxon was living up to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) safety standards. True, Exxon’s decision to build an unprotected crude pipeline only 5 to 8 feet below a flood prone river appears to have been imprudent. Exxon’s decision to restart the pipeline in May despite heavy flooding was foolish. However, the real story is that this string of reckless decisions was permitted by both our pipeline safety regulations and the regulators who enforce them.

This reactive approach to pipeline safety regulation is evidenced by the Department of Transportation’s approach to Keystone XL and other pipelines carrying raw tar sands crude. In her recent testimony to Congress on pipeline safety, Cynthia Quarterman, the Administrator of DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), conceded that her agency did not have a handle on the safety risks that raw tar sands pipelines pose. Specifically, she said that the U.S. pipeline system was not designed with the risks of raw tar sands crude in mind, her agency had not evaluated those risks, and she did not know whether current safety regulations were sufficient to address them. Despite these serious unknowns, her agency has not actively engaged in the consideration of the Keystone XL

We do not need regulators to tell us that a pipeline gushing tens of thousands of gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River isn’t operating as safely as it should be.  We need our regulators to proactively evaluate the risks of spills and create standards to ensure that our wild blue rivers don’t turn black in the first place.

And the stakes are getting higher. Exxon’s Silvertip pipeline, with a capacity of 40,000 barrels, spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons before it could be shut off. This spill has sickened residents, wrecked havoc with ranchers who use the river for irrigation, and may have devastating long-term impacts for the ecology of the river. Early on, EPA noted that because of river conditions, very little of the spilled oil is likely to be recovered. Exxon has positively spun this to say that river conditions are ‘dispersing’ the oil. What this really means is that they are not able to clean the oil up as it contaminates stretches of the Yellowstone River far downstream of the spill site.

The proposed 830,000 barrel per day Keystone XL tar sands pipeline crosses the same Yellowstone River as well as 1,903 other rivers, streams and reservoirs across the United States. A similar spill on Keystone XL would have resulted in nearly a million gallons of raw tar sands crude spilling into the Yellowstone River with potentially catastrophic results. TransCanada, the operator of this pipeline, has had an abysmal record. Its first tar sands pipeline, Keystone I, has had thirty three leaks in the U.S. and Canada in less than one year of operation and is the youngest pipelines in the U.S. to be deemed by regulators a threat to life, property and the environment. Meanwhile, the State Department is rushing forward in its evaluation of Keystone XL without a thorough study of its risks. The State Department needs to seriously evaluate the risks Keystone XL presents to our communities, environment and water when it considers whether the project is in the national interest.

An accident that should have been prevented is not really an accident. Tragedies like the Yellowstone River spill can be prevented by strong safety regulations and the proactive action of regulators. Today we are in desperate need of both.

To take action, please go to and send a letter to Secretary of State Clinton to say no to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

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