Safety in pipelines: The fracking truth

“People die from these things and the people who run the infrastructure for these cities know it they are scared of these systems.” — Dr. Robert Howarth, Cornell University speaking about the pipeline system that carries oil and gas around the United States.

As clean up efforts following the Yellowstone River Oil Spill continue, Congress is preparing to take a closer look at pipeline safety across the United States.

Pipelines, as the Checks and Balances Project pointed out in a recent report, criss-cross most of the United States. And while the Yellowstone River spill in Montana gushed thousands of barrels of oil downstream, many pipelines carry an equally dangerous material: natural gas. And as companies like ExxonMobil, which is responsible for the oil spill in Montana, continue to push for more natural gas production by using hydraulic fracturing, the pipeline issue isn’t going to vanish.

A recent interview, Cornell University professor Robert Howarth underscored the seriousness of America’s pipeline situation.  “People die from these things and the people who run the infrastructure for these cities know it. They are scared of these systems,” said Howarth. The Cornell University researcher is most well known as of late for penning a report that said there needs to be more study on the emissions of natural gas because of leakages in pipelines. This report led to a smear campaign against Howarth from the natural gas industry. Still, in the wake of another pipeline disaster, the professor refuses to be silenced because, as he put it, no one is talking about the pipeline situation.

“So is nobody looking at this?” asked Checks and Balances Project Director Andrew Schenkel.

“No, there is distressingly little attention given to this issue,” replied Howarth.

Below is an excerpt from the Howarth interview about pipelines and fracking:

Given the growing list of oil and gas pipeline mishaps, which over the last 18 months includes 18 deaths, 13 injuries and 85 destroyed homes, the question is how many natural gas pipelines are there in the United States?

Natural Gas Pipeline and Facilities By the Numbers:

  • There are more than 210 natural gas pipeline systems.
  • More than 1,400 compressor stations that maintain pressure on the natural gas pipeline network and assure continuous forward movement of supplies. (Compressor Map)
  • More than 11,000 delivery points, 5,000 receipt points, and 1,400 interconnection points that provide for the transfer of natural gas throughout the United States.
  • 24 hubs or market centers that provide additional interconnections (see map).
  • 400 underground natural gas storage facilities (see map).
  • 49 locations where natural gas can be imported/exported via pipelines (see map).
  • 8 LNG (liquefied natural gas) import facilities and 100 LNG peaking facilities (see map).

Five things to consider about the Yellowstone Pipeline leak

Nearly a week has passed and thousands of gallons of crude oil have poured into the Yellowstone River in Montana. The spill has placed attention on America’s often overlooked and aging pipeline system. As the media continues to cover ExxonMobil and its ruptured pipeline, here are a few things to consider about pipelines in the United States.

Leaky past

Over the last eighteen months the United States has seen a steady flow of pipeline accidents that have resulted in the spilling of millions of gallons of oil, the destruction of homes from coast to coast and several deaths and injuries. Between January 2010 and February 2011 nine major pipeline explosions resulted in 18 deaths, 13 injuries and 85 destroyed homes in the United States.

A full list of all pipeline accidents in the United States, including the Yellowstone River incident, can be found here. The list also includes the estimated 800,000 gallons of crude that spilled into the Kalamazoo River last year, as well as the 600,000 gallons of crude that made it into a Chicago suburb just months later. Both spills were the result of pipeline failures.

Regulating the flow

The management of pipelines is a bureaucratic nightmare. Six seemingly unrelated federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation, Mineral Services Management and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, have a share in the responsibility as the Agencies of The Joint Pipeline Office dealing with concerns over safety, regulation, transportation and access of oil and gas from interstate pipelines. The agencies are responsible for thousands of miles of aging pipelines, some of which have been around since the 1860s. Yet, spills continue to happen causing leaks into our precious natural resources.

Exxon’s lies

In the wake of the Yellowstone River spill, ExxonMobil is increasingly going on the defensive for not telling the truth to federal officials and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. The Associated Press reports that an ExxonMobil said the oil spill had been contained within 30 minutes of the rupture. That reports shows that it was actually nearly an hour before the pipeline had been fully turned off. This was not the first discrepancy between ExxonMobil’s rhetoric and the reality of the Montana disaster.

Before giving federal officials and Schweitzer false information about how long crude flowed into the Yellowstone, ExxonMobil had been sticking to their story that ten miles of the Yellowstone River could be affected by the spill. By the time Schweitzer spoke on television on Tuesday night, the governor knew that the dynamics of the flowing Yellowstone River meant that ExxonMobil’s ten-mile claim was bogus. “At seven miles per hour, some oil is already in North Dakota. That’s a given,” Schweitzer said. That same day, the same transportation officials who were told that oil wouldn’t go beyond a ten-mile stretch, acknowledged that oil had been observed in Terry Montana, more than 240 miles downstream.

Keystone concerns

The Yellowstone River disaster comes at a critical time for America’s pipeline and energy industry. The Secretary of State’s office is currently considering approval for what would be a major pipeline that would connect crude oil reserves in the Alberta Tar Sands to refineries in the United States. This proposed expansion of the existing Keystone pipeline has raised concerns for several reasons. First, the pipelines will come close to existing waterways and aquifers. Modern pipelines can be buried as much as 25 feet beneath bodies of water; Exxon Mobil’s Silvertip line was 5 to 8 feet below the bottom of the Yellowstone. In Nebraska, several state legislators have expressed concerns that if a disaster like the spill in the Yellowstone River were to happen near the Oglala Aquifer, the damage done to a critical water supply to one of the nation’s leading agricultural states could be catastrophic. The same concern has been echoed by Nebraska’s two United States Senators who despite being members of different political parties, are both skeptical of the project’s potential harm to drinking water.

Of course this raises the question of the likelihood of spill from an expanded Keystone XL pipeline. According to a report by the National Resources Defense Council, spills from the existing Keystone XL pipeline occur at a rate of about one per month. Over the last eleven months eleven spills have occurred at pumping stations along the pipeline. This includes a May 7 spill of 500 barrels in North Dakota, which sent a geyser of oil spurting 60 feet into the air and shutdown the pipeline for a week.

Another reason for concern surrounding plans to expand the Keystone XL comes down to ties between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and TransCanada. TransCanada is the company that owns the existing Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada’s main Washington, DC lobbyist is Paul Elliot, who served as the Secretary of State’s national deputy director for her failed presidential run in 2008. This cozy relationship has resulted in several organization filing requests to see the discussions between Clinton and Elliot throughout this process. Currently, the Secretary of State’s office is in the review stages of the approval process for the pipeline, which if given the go-ahead would allow for 900,000 barrels of crude to be pumped into the United States every day.

Clean up costs

Not only does ExxonMobil make $5 million per hour, the company is a beneficiary of $21 billion in tax breaks (over the next five years) to the top five oil corporations.

Yet the “richest company in the world is using oil spill technology that is at least 40 years old,” said Eric Pica, president of Friends of the Earth during an appearance on MSNBC. ExxonMobil has not invested any funds into the ‘technological innovation’ of clean up equipment even though the Yellowstone Pipeline “has leaked at least 71 times on tribal lands, including one failure that resulted in a 163,000 gallon spill into a reservation creek.”

ExxonMobil will mostly be able to write off the clean up costs as a classic business deduction. Like Americans did during the BP spill (which reportedly cost $5 billion to clean up), they will accrue most of the financial costs of this leak. And who knows how much the tab will end up costing this time.