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Daniel J. Graeber

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Are There Holes in Pipeline Transparency?

An assistant attorney general in Montana announced this week he was trying to decide whether or not to move ahead with claims against Exxon Mobil for a July oil spill in the Yellowstone River. Exxon had agreed to a million-dollar settlement for environmental damage that resulted from the rupture of its Silvertip oil pipeline that, at the time, was buried just four feet below the riverbed. A state attorney general was quoted by local media as saying all of the environmental issues weren't resolved yet but statements last year suggested all was well, so what gives? Is there something lacking when it comes to pipeline transparency?

More than 1,000 barrels of oil spewed into the Yellowstone River after Exxon Mobile's Silvertip pipeline burst during heavy flooding in the region in July. By August, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said samples taken from the region didn't show any elevated levels of chemicals that would persist in the environment. Officials had said Silvertip wasn't carrying tar sands oil at the time, but it does on occasion -- just, conveniently enough, not when the pipeline ripped open. By the end of the year, Exxon was boring holes far below the riverbed as engineers worked on repairs. The Billings Gazette, in its comments on the attorney general's statements, noted quietly this week that less than 1 percent of the total amount of oil spilled from Silvertip was ever recovered, however. Does that mean there's still about 1,000 barrels of oil floating around somewhere?

So far, this decade seems to be the decade of the broken oil pipeline, kicking off in stellar fashion with the rupture of Line 6B of the Lakehead pipeline system in southern Michigan. Crews there are still cleaning up that mess two years later because Lakehead was carrying tar sands oil and tar sands oil sinks. This year, the White House passed new laws regulating oil and natural gas pipelines, however. The measure stiffens the penalties for pipeline safety violations and calls for more inspections. Yay for pipelines!

That's all fine and well, yet the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration hasn't even issued so much as a press statement since November -- not even when the pipeline safety bill was passed. Granted, the White House did, but with the political furor over domestic oil and natural gas spilling over into the election cycle, transparency should be front and center of the debate. Despite persistent queries to a variety of agencies, experts and advocates, nobody seems to be able to answer a basic question like how many pipelines in the United States are carrying tar sands oil at any given time. If Montana lawyers are concerned about outstanding issues, maybe all isn't as well as it seems.

By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com




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