Yellowstone River oil spill shows dangers of even riskier Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline under same river

Once again this weekend, we saw a clear example of how water and oil don’t mix when an Exxon oil pipeline spewed around 40,000 gallons into the wild Yellowstone River in Montana. The mess is likely a wakeup call for officials in Montana. And is yet another reminder for pipeline regulators around the country that we have a problem. It’s been a bad year with spills in Michigan, some big messes in Canada, spills all along first Keystone tar sands oil pipeline in the Great Plains, a spill in downtown Salt Lake City and now in the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. As these spills take a toll on American waters, landscapes, and communities. I wonder when we will get focused on fixing our faulty infrastructure to stop these messes---and if we can afford to build another mega-pipeline across our most sensitive water resources without fixing the problem.

Montana’s Governor Schweitzer is rightly focused on making sure the cleanup of this spill happens quickly and thoroughly. As a next step Montana should also be questioning the safety of proposed new pipelines such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would also cross the wild Yellowstone River. Tar sands oil from Canada is more corrosive, more prone to spills, and more difficult to clean up than conventional oil. The Exxon oil pipeline spill is another indicator that we should not be transporting even more dangerous and dirty tar sands oil endangering our precious rivers, agricultural lands, communities and wildlife.

The ExxonMobil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River in south central Montana broke late Friday night just west of Billings. The river is running fast and high full of snow melt from the Rockies. Despite the work of cleanup crews, it is feared that oil has travelled far downstream in a region critical for irrigation and important as fish and bird habitat. The Yellowstone River runs into the Missouri River meaning that an oil spill in the Yellowstone can have a wide-reaching impact. News reports show pelicans and turtles that have been oiled.  The lower Yellowstone River is home to the rarest and largest freshwater fish in North America – the pallid sturgeon – and is also home to the endangered Least Tern.

As we saw from the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf, toxins in the oil can take a lethal toll on aquatic life of all kinds. Exposure to these toxins can also cause genetic damage, liver disease, cancer and harm to reproductive and immune systems. Clean up can take a long time. For example, almost at the one year anniversary of a spill of 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, clean efforts are still underway. The full extent of the damage usually takes years to unfold. The herring population collapsed in Prince William Sound, for example, three years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

We don’t yet know the extent of the damage from this oil spill – or what it will mean for the people and wildlife that depend on the river system. What we do know is that this type of pipeline spill is not acceptable. Exxon says that the oil is dissipating. I worry that means that Exxon is not able to capture the oil to clean it up with the river running so high and fast. In the same way, TransCanada has characterized the 12 tar sands oil spills in just the first year of its Keystone One pipeline as “business as usual.” Surely, this is not a time to be granting a permit to an even more likely to leak pipeline such as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to cross the Yellowstone River in Montana. This is a time to be re-examining our pipeline safety regulations and assessing the safety risks of new proposed pipelines such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline that would carry even more corrosive, likely to spill and difficult to clean up substances such as tar sands from Canada.  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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