Yellowstone River Damaged by Exxon Pipeline Oil Spill -- Exxon's History in Montana Continues Its Abysmal Path

Oil in Montana's Yellowstone River  Photo by NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky

While everyone is holding their collective breath, hoping that future developments do not worsen regarding the news that an Exxon pipeline carrying oil crude broke in the middle of the Yellowstone River outside of Billings Montana releasing thousands of gallons of crude into the river, industry’s record for safeguarding oil and gas pipelines in the state of Montana – and Exxon specifically – is dismal.

While we cannot predict what will happen in the near future, if other Big Oil disasters are any evidence, we can probably foresee in the next few hours and days that Exxon will pull out an all too familiar public relations playbook to avoid further scrutiny of their actions in order to avoid full culpability:

One, Exxon will claim that the immediate disaster is over and the natural resource damage and impacts to human health are minimal.  They will also likely underreport, or deemphasize the amount of oil actually spilled. A day into the disaster, Exxon has already begun to do this.  Exxon spokesman have said that the spill has been fairly well contained and that there is "very little soiling" of stream banks beyond 10-miles.  Given that no one has been able to actually inspect the ruptured pipeline, since its submerged at the bottom of a raging free-flowing river that is two-feet above flood stage, one wonders how Exxon can claim so soon that everything is now abated and the damage is negligible.

Two, Exxon will pledge that they will fully clean and repair the damaged resources.  Again, Exxon is saying as much in a statement today, “We will stay with the cleanup until it is complete…" Even if this is the case and Exxon is fully committed to cleanup, we know that their version of what is cleaned is not the same as others – see Prince William Sound.  Exposure to oil, especially to aquatic life, is devastating and long-lasting (see NRDC’s Matthew Skoglund and his recent posting on the importance of the Yellowstone River’s fishery for the region and beyond).

Three, Exxon will claim that safety is their number one priority. Predictably, Exxon has said as much in the last 24-hours, that the pipeline was inspected six months ago and met "all regulatory requirements.” Given their emphasis on oversized profits, I would go back to the previous exhibit, which speaks to Exxon’s thought process, leading it to site an oil pipeline on the most scenic, ecologically critical, and longest undammed river in the contiguous United States. 

Four, Exxon will probably maintain that this was a freak accident and could not have been foretold or prevented.  A full airing of Exxon’s record will show that this is simply not the case.  One only has to look at how it has maintained (or not) their Yellowstone Pipeline.  The Yellowstone Pipeline is a 550-mile pipeline that originates from the refineries in Billings, MT, makings its way westward to deliver petroleum products to Idaho and the state of Washington (the Yellowstone Pipeline and the Silvertip crude pipeline that failed this week, are nominally part of a larger system that Exxon oversees).  The pipeline was sited in some of the most rugged country to be found in this nation.  But rather than respecting the fact that the Yellowstone Pipeline was situated in such a harsh environment, Exxon and Conoco who co-managed the pipeline, failed often to maintain it satisfactorily.  In its 55-plus year history, it has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum into Montana’s rivers and lands. 

Most famously, Exxon and Conoco in the mid 1990’s realized that a right-of-way for the Yellowstone Pipeline that went through the middle of the sovereign Flathead Indian Reservation, was soon to expire and had to be renewed with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes who controlled the lease. Problem was the pipeline had spilled at least 71 times on the 1.2 million acre reservation, contaminating tribal fishing and hunting grounds.  When it came time to renew, the tribal members had only recently witnessed a spill with the pipeline that resulted in a whopping 163,000 gallons leaking into a reservation creek.   

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, were to say the least, reticent to renew the lease given the damage that Exxon and company had caused.  In this milieu, the Yellowstone Pipeline management went to the extraordinary measure of publicly apologizing to tribal members by posting a full-page advertisement in the tribal newspaper saying, "We've done serious damage to the land’ ‘For this we are truly sorry ' We're asking for a chance to do things right."  And while Exxon and Conoco approved the ad, they did not notice the howling coyote that was seemingly inserted by the paper’s staff within the oil company’s advertisement.  As High Country News reported at the time, “Tribal members must have noticed: Coyote is known as a trickster in many tribal legends, one who can't always be trusted.”  With that, the tribal members rejected the renewal of the lease, and turned away from millions of dollars from Exxon; possibly realizing that millions in dollars cannot compensate for the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.

Which brings me back to Claim #4, in trying to pawn this accident as a freak occurrence. Exxon can commit all they want to cleaning up the damage – as they should – but we should question the accidental nature of these incidents.  As history has shown, Exxon has often chosen a path that allows for spills, and the environment and human health are often the losers.  The Yellowstone spill might actually be a rare accident – if and when all the facts come to light – but this only proves that stronger enforcement and accountability for current pipelines are an absolute must. 

Note: this is not the only insult to Montana’s environment that is happening under Exxon’s watch.  Exxon also plans to turn the scenic highways of Montana into an industrial superhighway to serve tar sands extraction in Canada by sending hundreds of “megaload” shipments through the state’s scenic highways.   For more information see: Exxon Solves Their Megaload Problem - By Cutting the Trees to Shreds.

Creative Commons photo of oil in Montana's Yellowstone River, on Flickr, by NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky.

About the Authors

Bobby McEnaney

Senior Deputy Director, Western Renewable Energy Project

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