Oil and water 

Yellowstone River spill fuels Keystone XL debate

In the days following the July 1 Exxon Mobil pipeline rupture that sent an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil down the Yellowstone River, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer lambasted the Texas oil giant. He claimed the company downplayed the spill's impacts, he promised legal action, and he even pulled the state out of an Environmental Protection Agency oil spill command center because he claimed Exxon Mobil had hijacked it.

Through it all, Schweitzer has displayed his signature folksy shtick, saying, "ain't nobody gonna blow smoke up the south side of this north-facing governor," and that he'll "stay on this like smell on a skunk until it's cleaned up."

But while Schweitzer portrays himself as an enviro-populist fighting the transgressions of Big Oil, he's also defending Keystone XL, a proposed $7 billion, 1,711-mile pipeline between Alberta's tar sands and Texas, 250 miles of which would pass through Montana. It's a tricky tightrope to walk even for the popular, pro-energy-development Democrat, underscoring that two of his core policy positions—close-to-home energy production and protecting Montana's environment—could be at odds.

click to enlarge The route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline through Montana - MAP COURTESY OF JOHN STANSBURG

The Yellowstone River oil spill escalated the debate over TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry about 700,000 barrels of crude oil per day (compared to the 40,000-barrel capacity of Exxon Mobil's ruptured Silvertip pipeline). Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say the spill should be a wakeup call, but Schweitzer told reporters recently: "I don't think one ought to confuse what happens with this particular old technology, Silvertip, with what will occur in the future."

On Tuesday, environmental activists staged a protest of Keystone XL in Schweitzer's office. Last week, eastern Montana landowners sent a letter to Schweitzer asking that his outrage over the Yellowstone River spill result in the state requiring a series of landowner-protection measures before Keystone XL is approved. "We are glad that you have made it your cause to make Exxon fix the mess, but there is some damage that won't ever be fixed," wrote Darrell Garoutte, Tim Hess, and Doris Frost, members of the Northern Plains Resource Council. "The best medicine is preventative and it is time to be preventative on the Keystone XL pipeline."

The EPA agrees. In early June, the agency said the Keystone XL proposal hadn't sufficiently accounted for the potential for oil spills. It pointed to TransCanada's Keystone I pipeline, which transports crude oil from Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma. "Just in the last month, the Keystone Pipeline experienced two leaks...These events...underscore the comments about the need to carefully consider both the route of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline and appropriate measures to prevent and detect a spill."

At least 12 Keystone spills have been reported since May 2010. The biggest occurred in Sargent County, North Dakota, where, on May 8 of this year, witnesses reported seeing a "six-story geyser of oil gushing from a pump station," according to news reports.

We should expect more spills from Keystone XL than TransCanada wants to admit, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln civil engineering professor John Stansbury. On Monday, he released a study that found that TransCanada lowballed spill risks. The company estimated that the Keystone XL pipeline would experience 11 significant spills of more than 50 barrels over 50 years; Stansbury says it should be more like 90.

"If you are going to develop energy in this country, there are consequences, there's give-and-take," Schweitzer says. "But if we don't develop energy in this country, we know the consequences." He adds that he'll never have to send Montana troops to defend the Bakken oil fields, the proposed Otter Creek coal mine, or the Alberta border.

Before the Silvertip spill, 34 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 23 requesting, among other things, a full lifecycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil to ensure that the pipeline is consistent with the administration's clean energy and climate change priorities. The EPA estimates that the greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil is 82 percent greater than those produced by conventional crude oil.

"People beat up on the oil sands, saying the footprint is higher," Schweitzer says. "No, it's not. If you compare the way they develop their oil in Nigeria or Angola, and what we have to pay to have our military—which, by the way, has the largest carbon footprint of any organization on the planet—ensconced in the Middle East to protect that oil supply, suddenly the footprint doesn't look so big in Alberta."

On July 7, TransCanada sent a letter to Congress clarifying the steps it would take to protect the Yellowstone and other rivers the pipeline would cross, including the Missouri. Among them, it said the pipeline would run 25 feet below Yellowstone's riverbed, compared to the five- to eight-foot depth of the Silvertip. TransCanada also disputed Stansbury's findings.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is awaiting a presidential permit from the U.S. State Department, required because the pipeline would cross an international boundary. Last October, Clinton said she was "inclined" to approve the proposal. A decision is expected by the end of the year.

Montana must also grant a permit.

"The permitting process for Keystone XL is currently in progress, and you are in a position to prevent a disaster from Keystone XL," the Montana landowners wrote to Schweitzer last week. "Please use your position toward that end."

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