Guest Editorial


Ignore oil-pipeline alarmism

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robert bradleySeveral of the country's most powerful environmental groups have latched on to this spring's 10,000-barrell Arkansas oil spill to fight against a federal permit for Keystone XL, a proposed transnational pipeline project. New Washington-DC subway ads from claim this spill is just a "preview" of what will come by connecting Canadian oil deposits with refineries in the Texas Gulf Coast.

This now standard tactic among green groups–opposing new energy projects by highlighting dissimilar accidents–is obstructionist thinking. Nobody likes oil spills, but the energy industry has proven it can contain pipeline ruptures quickly and safely.

The Mayflower Incident Unified Command Joint Information Center reports swift and diligent remediation efforts following the Arkansas spill. The oil has already been almost completely cleaned up. Families are being compensated by pipeline-owner ExxonMobil. And the local environment has been restored.

The spilled oil did not reach nearby drinking water supplies. And air quality monitors are detecting no or below-action-level fumes. There were no deaths or injuries either.

Pipelines are careful operations because oil spills are costly to bottom lines and can sully hard-earned reputations. Accidents can pollute water and soil, harm or kill animals, disrupt lives, and far worse. Under state and federal regulations, companies responsible for spillage must work with government authorities to collect the oil, dispose of it properly, and remediate the affected areas.

In recent years, oil companies have made a concerted effort to learn from spills and adopt practices aimed at preventing future accidents. According to a 2009 study by Environmental Research Consulting, the oil industry has reduced spills by 77 percent since the 1970s.

Pipelines in particular have benefited from a 35 percent reduction in spillage rates, largely thanks to the introduction of new computer, ultrasonic, and electronic technology combined with improved procedures. Smart pigs, which are barrel-shaped devices carrying sensors, travel through pipelines to check the structural integrity of pipeline walls. Flyovers by sensor-equipped airplanes provide early detection of potential weaknesses.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, digging is one of the main causes of pipeline incidents. Industry and government have also work together on a public information campaign that encourages contractors and homeowners to call 8-1-1 before they dig to avoid damaging pipelines.

However, we do live in an imperfect world. People will make mistakes and equipment sometimes fails. So the energy industry cannot promise that spills will never occur.

But claiming that oil pipelines should never be built because there's a risk of an accident is just silly. Following that reasoning, one could also argue against all highway construction, since it's impossible to ensure they will be absolutely safe and collision-free.

Of course, no one would buy that logic. Highways are essential to the U.S. economy and our way of life – just like oil.

What's more, Keystone XL itself will be one of the safest and most technologically advanced pipelines ever constructed. It's designed with over 20,000 sensors to detect leaks, along with valves that automatically shut off in the event of a rupture. And a pipeline is a much safer oil transportation medium that barges, railcars, or tankers.

By building the Keystone XL, 830,000 barrels of Canadian oil could flow daily to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries where it would be processed into the fuels required by industry and consumers.
If the Obama Administration rejects Keystone, the Canadian government has stated that the project will turn to building the pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, where its oil would be loaded on tankers and shipped to China. Environmental protections are not nearly as stringent where the oil will be processed in China, the country with the world's most greenhouse gas emissions.
For a variety of reasons, regulators should no longer appease environmental extremists by holding up Keystone XL. Oil accidents are rare and quickly dealt with, and state-of-the-art pipeline technology promises improving operation in a world that, unfortunately, cannot be accident-free.

Robert L. Bradley Jr. is the CEO & Founder of the Institute for Energy Research and author of Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies (Scrivener Publishing and John Wiley & Sons).