Since launching an investigation into the Mayflower, Ark. oil spill on April 2, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has pushed hard to resolve unanswered questions about the pipeline accident.
McDaniel, a Democrat in his second term as attorney general, caused a stir on April 3 when he insisted on touring the site of the spill with his staff instead of in a bus tour organized by ExxonMobil, the company responsible for the 210,000-gallon pipeline rupture. He drew attention again when he was among the first public officials to acknowledge that some of the oil had reached Lake Conway, a popular recreational area. And instead of relying solely on the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate the spill, he issued a subpoena that forced ExxonMobil to provide his office with documents about the pipeline and its operational history.
WASHINGTON—Leading environmental groups declared on Monday that the Obama administration's latest environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline fundamentally violated the nation's core environmental law, an unmistakable warning that they would sue the State Department if it continued to insist that the pipeline poses no significant environmental risk.
As if to bolster their case, the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in as well with its own rebuke, saying that it found "environmental objections" to the State Department's controversial draft environmental impact statement, issued in March, which it deemed "insufficient." A public comment period ended on Monday, and these were among the first comments released.
Industry groups, in their own comments, broadly endorsed the State Department's approach, which has been widely seen as offering a green light to Keystone, if not an immediate one. Months more of reviewing by the Obama administration lies ahead.
Just a day after roughly one million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil spilled into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it was launching a formal investigation into the incident. It quickly set up shop in a local hotel and conducted dozens of interviews with pipeline workers, local officials and residents. It did field and laboratory analysis of the ruptured pipeline in its own labs. And its investigators pored over the responsible company’s records to recreate what happened.
After two years of work, the agency released the results of its investigation: The spill was caused by major lapses in safety by Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's owner and operator, and by "weak regulations" for the entire U.S. pipeline network.
The NTSB has taken none of these steps since the March 29 pipeline break in Mayflower, Ark., where an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil spilled into a neighborhood of neat brick houses. In fact, the independent federal agency hasn't investigated any oil pipeline spills since Kalamazoo, even though information about the risks of transporting oil through pipelines is in high demand as thousands of miles of new pipelines—including the Keystone XL—are being proposed.
WASHINGTON—Advocates and opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are due to file detailed comments on its environmental impacts on Monday, after the State Department refused to extend the comment period, which environmental groups had complained was too short.
As many as a million members of the public are expected to meet the comment deadline, which by happenstance fell on Earth Day, April 22. Comments are also expected from industry, labor and environmental groups on both sides of the debate over the proposed pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands region to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The government of Alberta, the American Petroleum Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other groups said they will release copies of their comments soon. But it is not clear when the State Department will make all the written comments public, as required under the National Environmental Protection Act.
The commenters are all seeking to influence the draft supplemental environmental impact statement, or SEIS, that the State Department released in March, which appeared to open the door to a decision later this year to grant the pipeline a permit. Once the final SEIS is issued, the State Department must begin a separate deliberation to determine if the project is in the national interest—a question that goes beyond environmental considerations.
When ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured last month in Mayflower, Ark., it was carrying diluted bitumen, a controversial form of oil from Canada's tar sands region. That was confirmed in a letter an Exxon lawyer wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week.
But the letter contradicts public assertions by company officials that the spilled oil was simply "heavy oil," not tar sands bitumen. It also raises, once again, the question that surfaces after every spill involving oil from Canada: Is it or isn't it diluted bitumen?
Bitumen is a semi-solid form of crude oil found in Canada's vast oil sands region, where it is found with sand, clay and water in formations dating back hundreds of millions of years. Because bitumen is so thick and tarry, producers dilute it with natural gas liquids or light oil so it can flow through pipelines. That creates a type of oil called diluted bitumen, or dilbit.
The letter Exxon sent to the EPA on April 10 was a response to the EPA's request for more information about Wabasca Heavy—the oil that poured out of a 22-foot-long gash on its Pegasus line on March 29. "Can the oil accurately be described as tar sands oil, or a type of diluted bitumen (dilbit)?" the EPA had asked in an April 5 letter to Exxon.
WASHINGTON – A House subcommittee has taken the first step toward legislation that would push through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, bypassing the State Department and the White House while limiting other regulatory and court reviews.
The subcommittee on energy and power voted 17-9 on Tuesday to approve the Northern Route Approval Act and send it to the full Energy and Commerce Committee. Two Democrats joined 15 Republicans in support of the bill.
The legislation declares that the delivery of oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in the United States "is in the national interest because of the need to lessen dependence upon insecure foreign sources."
It describes the ongoing Federal regulatory process as "an insurmountable obstacle."
"No Presidential permit shall be required for the pipeline," the bill flatly decrees.
InsideClimate News reporters Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer are the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
The trio took top honors in the category for their work on "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.
The Pulitzer committee commended the reporters for their "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil."
WASHINGTON—The premier of Alberta, Canada, made another visit to Washington D.C. last week, pleading again for U.S. approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry Alberta's heavy crude to refineries on the Texas coast.
Without expanded access to markets in the United States and beyond, Premier Alison Redford said, her province's oil sands crude is selling for discounted prices—and that is creating big problems for Alberta's budget, which relies heavily on oil royalties.
"It has really had an impact on our revenues, you know—we've expected that probably this year alone because of that differential that we are seeing about a $6 billion drop in revenues," Redford said at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday.
It is a bit of a novelty for Washington to host the leader of a petro state controlling one of the richest oil reserves in the world, come to plead poverty as part of her sales pitch.
But in Canada, it was a familiar refrain—and one that many who study the province's management of its natural resources dispute.
The province's budget problems are not due to any discount in the price of bitumen or other fuels from the tar sands, they say, but to the way Alberta has subsidized the oil industry by charging next to nothing in royalties for the oil.
The rupture in the ExxonMobil pipeline that sent a river of oil through a suburban neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark. is now known to be 22 feet long and 2 inches wide. That's almost four times longer than the six-foot pipeline tear that sent more than one million gallons of Canadian dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, the worst accident of its kind in U.S. history.
The size and speed of the release through a long opening, thin as a mail slot, shines a spotlight on just how quickly oil pipeline accidents can turn into catastrophes. Between 200,000 and 420,000 gallons of heavy oil spewed out of the 65-year-old pipeline without warning on March 29, Good Friday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of 22 suburban homes.
Few Americans realize how much pressure is needed to operate a pipeline like the Pegasus, which moves more than 90,000 barrels a day of crude across four states, from Illinois to Texas. That's almost four million gallons of heavy oil being pushed over an 850-mile distance in a single day.
When a rupture occurs, so much force is released that large amounts of oil can pour through the breach in minutes.
"People just don't gather how high these things can go," said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline consulting firm Accufacts Inc. "For the average person, they're just exotic pressures." But if pipeline operators drop their guard, he said, pipelines "can be highly destructive."
As residents and local officials of Mayflower, Ark. were scrambling to evacuate homes and protect their treasured fishing lake from a river of heavy oil pouring through their town on Good Friday afternoon, ExxonMobil, the company responsible for the accident, didn't know what was happening.
A 22-foot gash had opened up in its oil pipeline that cut through the Arkansas town, 450 miles from its headquarters in Houston, and the people were in a sudden uproar. In the emergency response, dispatchers called Exxon and informed them of the unfolding disaster, and company employees arrived on the scene an hour after the emergency was first reported to local authorities.
That is the picture that emerges from transcripts of 911 police reports obtained by InsideClimate News from the Faulkner County Sheriff's Office.
Police transcripts show that Jennifer Dement of 50 Starlite Road North was the first to report the oil spill at 2:44 p.m. on March 29.