Preventing oil pipeline ruptures? Increase safety oversight and don't grant safety waivers.

There is an immediate action that the Department of Transportation can take to respond to the Enbridge oil pipeline spill in Michigan: they can stop giving the equivalent of safety waivers to oil pipeline companies, as they did to the two tar sands oil pipelines permitted over the last few years: the Enbridge Alberta Clipper and the TransCanada Keystone both from Canada to the Midwest.

Today, NRDC, Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and Friends of the Earth sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking that the Department of Transportation (DOT) exercise additional oversight to ensure the safety of existing pipelines. This should include requiring companies to comply with higher standards for the monitoring and reporting, as well as development of more robust and publicly available emergency response plans. We also asked that DOT not grant any further “special permits” – essentially safety waivers – allowing companies to construct new oil pipelines with materials that would not otherwise be permitted under existing pipeline safety regulations. You can read the letter here: 

Specifically, as the next major oil pipeline on the horizon, the TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline should not receive a special permit – essentially a safety waiver – to use thinner steel under high pressure while transporting a highly corrosive type of oil. Such a safety waiver might save TransCanada close to $1 billion – but what will it mean for the health and safety along the pipeline path in America?  In fact, DOT should recommend that the Keystone XL pipeline not be built. As one of the agencies consulted in the permitting process it can and should weigh in on the environmental impacts of the pipeline and on the national interest in the pipeline. DOT has not yet made its comments public on the environmental impacts (as EPA and the Energy Department did), but it should. And DOT has the authority to say that the pipeline is not in the national interest - a decision that only comes once the final environmental impact statement can be assessed.

Last week’s Enbridge oil pipeline spill in Michigan of approximately 1 million gallons into the Kalamazoo River is just the latest. As we learned in the recent NWF report on oil spills, more than 2,500 significant pipeline incidents that have occurred in United States over the last decade. This history of pipeline spills demonstrates that transportation of oil over land can cause a toxic mess just as deepwater drilling, tar sands oil strip-mining, and other risky extraction methods can.

TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline would run through six states from Montana to Texas and over the Ogallala Aquifer, the main freshwater source for eight states. The bitumen that comprises the basis for tar sands oil is known to be more toxic, more corrosive, and more viscous than even the heaviest conventional crude our country has been importing in the past 100 years. The risks posed by the pipeline to the livelihoods of the people who depend on the freshwater and soils through which it would pass are too high to justify building the pipeline, or granting TransCanada a special permit to build it with less steel.

TransCanada’s track record for safety is already coming under question. South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources has reported leaks  in the first Keystone pipeline, which was recently completed and runs from Alberta, Canada, to eastern Illinois.

The growing litany of pipeline ruptures raises serious concerns about the efficacy of current pipeline oversight and emergency response in the United States.  As the Transportation Department considers permits for massive new pipelines, it is ludicrous to think that at a time when we have come to realize that existing government safety oversight is not sufficient, we would actually allow a company to profit at the expense of public health and safety.