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July 14, 2011

Pipeline Safety Concerns Heat Up Amid the Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline

USA Today - Yellowstone Oil Spill Two weeks after the Exxon pipeline ruptured into the rising waters of the Yellowstone River and there's still no end in sight for Montanans as they work to clean up the crude oil contaminating their land. Pastureland has been ruined, livestock forced to move, and a handful of local residents have reported symptoms of hydrocarbon poisoning. Yet even as the controversy and cleanup continues, another oil pipeline company, TransCanada, is actively lobbying to build the Keystone XL pipeline, a monster three times as large, underneath the iconic Yellowstone River.

TransCanada's advocacy is flying in the face of a report released by the University of Nebraska that details the disastrous results of a worst-case scenario spill from Keystone XL. According to the report, a tar sands oil spill from the Keystone XL "into the Platte River in Nebraska would form a plume of oil that could extend more than 450 miles, contaminating drinking water for people as far away as Kansas City, Mo., and threatening wildlife habitat….a worst-case spill in the Sandhills region of Nebraska could pollute 4.9 billion gallons of groundwater with a plume of contaminants 40 feet thick, 500 feet wide and 15 miles long."

TransCanada called the University of Nebraska report's results "unrealistically optimistic." This from a company that has not yet been able to submit an environmental impact statement on Keystone XL that the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't deemed "insufficient."

TransCanada's CEO also took to the pages of The Hill today to continue its push to reassure Americans that its Keystone XL pipeline would be safe. Thankfully, the LA Times has an editorial today discussing the risks of Keystone XL.

Meanwhile the House of Representatives is holding two hearings on pipeline safety this week that will investigate the Yellowstone spill and discuss the safety of other existing and planned pipelines.

First, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will hold a hearing today in its Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials about the Exxon pipeline spill in Montana (watch it live online at 10am ET). One of the speakers will be Exxon President, Gary Pruessing. Media accounts have found Exxon to be less than truthful about the damage caused by the Yellowstone spill. Hopefully committee members will hold Exxon accountable on just how much oil the pipeline failure spewed into the Yellowstone River.

Second, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will spend Friday in a hearing discussing a draft bill from Reps. Fred Upton and John Mica entitled "The Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011."

This bill calls for the Secretary of Transportation to conduct reviews of existing pipeline safety regulations, including studying whether hazardous liquid pipeline regulations are sufficient to regulate the transportation of tar sands crude oil by pipeline and whether any increase in risk of release exists for pipelines transporting such oil.

The draft bill also calls for the Secretary of Transportation to review existing pipeline emergency response measures and enact a number of safeguards, such as:

  • Prescribe a regulation to require the use of automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves (or equivalent technology) on pipelines.
  • Prescribe regulations to require the use of excess flow valves on new or entirely replaced distribution branch services, multi-family facilities, and small commercial facilities located in high-density population areas and environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Prescribe minimum safety standards for the pipeline transportation of carbon dioxide in gaseous form.

Pipelines have extended lifetimes - 40, 50, 60 years - so these decisions today will have long term impacts on our land, water, and air. Stay tuned.

-- Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Campaign. Photo by Julie Jacobson, AP, from USA Today, "Oil swirls in a small eddy in a back channel of the Yellowstone River on Monday near Laurel, Mont."

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