An oil pipeline spill afflicting a suburb of Little Rock in Arkansas is invigorating environmentalists opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline and serving as a stark reminder that even with tougher regulations, energy production comes with unavoidable risks.
The ExxonMobil pipeline, which is almost 900 miles long, ruptured on Friday, a little more than a year after President Obama signed a bill strengthening the nation’s pipeline-safety regulations and three years after another high-profile oil-pipeline spill in Michigan. The pipeline carries 90,000 barrels of heavy Canadian crude per day from Illinois to the Gulf Coast.
The company is planning a cleanup operation for 10,000 barrels to “ensure adequate resources are in place,” said ExxonMobil spokesman Charles Engelmann. The company does not yet have a more accurate estimate of the amount of oil spilled.
The spill comes 15 months after Obama signed into law a rare piece of bipartisan legislation strengthening the nation’s pipeline-safety laws. The Pipeline Safety Act reauthorized the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) within the Transportation Department and imposed stricter fines and tougher regulations for pipelines.
“The agency has taken action on almost all the mandates of the act,” said Jeannie Layson, director of governmental, international and public affairs for PHMSA.
Layson added that the department will not know whether any part of the newly enacted law affected or could affect the ExxonMobil spill until an investigation into its cause is complete. She did say that the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration will not affect the agency’s pipeline-inspection operation.
“However, sequestration will reduce the amount of funding PHMSA has available for state pipeline-safety grants,” Layson said. Layson would not elaborate on how many of these grants, which fund technical assistance for pipeline-safety issues on a local level, would be affected.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are seizing on the spill as further evidence that the president should deny the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry 700,000 barrels a day of carbon-heavy Canadian oil sands from Alberta to Texas.
According to Alan Jeffers, another ExxonMobil spokesman, the oil that spilled in Arkansas, known as Wabasca Heavy crude, is conventionally produced and not from oil sands, where the production process is considered more environmentally harmful than conventional production. Oil from oil sands is also a heavier type of oil, which experts say could erode pipelines more quickly than conventional oil.
To that end, the new pipeline-safety law requires the Transportation Department to complete a study on what impact this heavier type of oil has on pipelines. The report is expected to be complete in June, and it could be politically advantageous for Obama’s forthcoming decision on the Keystone pipeline.
When asked Monday about the Arkansas spill and whether it could affect Obama’s decision on Keystone, White House press secretary Jay Carney said he hadn’t talked to the president about it and didn’t offer any specifics.
This article appears in the April 2, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.