The silence is almost deafening. As the whole world watches and waits to see if President Obama is going to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, whether he will listen to the investors who insist that this will be totally safe, or the environmentalists who claim this could be “game over” for the climate, no one is saying anything about the huge spill that just occurred by Keystone’s predecessor last week, the 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline that runs through central Arkansas.
The 20-inch pipeline is owned by ExxonMobil. It runs from Illinois south to a refinery in Texas. It ruptured in a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, near Little Rock, flooding the streets and yards before emptying into storm drains and into Lake Conway, the largest manmade fish and game commission lake in the U.S. (despite ExxonMobil’s assurances to the contrary). The pipeline was expanded in 2009, raising its capacity from 60,000 to 90,000 barrels per day and repurposed to carry the heavy Canadian tar sands crude. The company is making concerted efforts to try and clean up the spill and has shutdown the pipeline for the time being. But, before shutting down, the pipeline pumped Wabasca heavy tar sands oil, a form of diluted bitumen into this neighborhood for close to an hour, putting an estimated 10,000 barrels onto the ground and into the water and air.
Because of a loophole inserted into law by a friend of oil in Congress, tar sands oil is technically not considered oil, which means that ExxonMobil will not have to pay a penny into the oil spill cleanup fund (though they will be paying for the cleanup).
Meanwhile, the FAA declared the area around the spill a no-fly zone. Speculation has it that this is to keep TV cameras from displaying the scope of the accident. This is supported by the fact that the no-fly zone restrictions were placed under the control of ExxonMobil.
Is it possible that this media silence has anything to do with Keystone?
The critical, or perhaps I should say, uncritical State Department review of the pipeline just about gave it a free pass based on the logic that oil would flow anyway, if not through the pipeline, then via the railroad. This, in essence, took the entire global warming argument off the table, using the “if I don’t do it, somebody else will” logic that Dr. John popularized back in the 70s. The problem is, the math was seriously flawed, glossing over the fact the economics of tar sands oil, which costs as much as $100 per barrel to get out of the ground, is critically dependent on the ability to transport it cheaply, a requirement that the use of the railroads will absolutely not meet.
I have to admit, I’m concerned. When I think of Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy at this point in the climate crisis, I’m picturing a house on fire with several fire trucks pulled in front of it. One truck is a tanker filled with water, and right beside it is another one filled with gasoline.
Whether this latest spill in Arkansas will do anything to change minds that were probably already made up, remains to be seen. If they can manage to keep the whole embarrassing and inconvenient episode quiet, that would certainly make it much easier. All the more reason to keep talking about it.
Aerial footage of Mayflower spill
I would just like to add this final note. A lot of people are angry at the oil companies for taking such risks to bring petroleum products to market, and justifiably so. At the same time, we need to recognize that we are putting this stuff into our gas tanks and driving around on it. So, if we are not doing everything we can to minimize our use of these products, then we are partially to blame as well, because, after all, the companies are responding to market demand.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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