OIL AND GAS:

Jockeying over safety, Keystone XL continues in wake of Yellowstone spill

The effects of an estimated 1,000-barrel oil leak from a ruptured pipeline along the Yellowstone River kept resounding in both Montana and Washington yesterday as lawmakers, regulators and environmentalists sought action and traded barbs over the unfolding incident.

While Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) put new pressure on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, calling for data on its oversight of the now-shuttered Silvertip pipeline, green groups pointed to signs of growing skepticism in the Plains about the safety of the hotly debated Keystone XL pipeline project.

"Not only do Montanans have a right to know what's going on, they need the best information to effectively restore the Yellowstone and the jobs that depend on it," Baucus said in a statement accompanying a letter that sought documents on the full extent of PHMSA's interactions with Silvertip operator Exxon Mobil Corp. "And there's nothing like the disinfectant of sunshine to force action and accountability."

Such vows of due diligence are giving Montana conservationists and landowners fresh reason to urge steep new state-level conditions for the Keystone XL pipeline, a $7 billion project poised to cross the same river that was oiled by the weekend Silvertip spill.

Dena Hoff of Glendive, Mont., whose land is downriver of the proposed river crossing for the XL pipeline, said she hopes Montana politicians such as Baucus, Sen. Jon Tester (D), and Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) use the Silvertip leak to take a tougher line on the new proposal.

"Because all they ever saw were jobs and dollar signs, and they have been pretty cavalier about ignoring the potential negative impacts that this pipeline could have," said Hoff, who works with the local green group Northern Plains Resource Council.

Yet Schweitzer yesterday said the Silvertip rupture would not shake his support for the XL project.

"I don't think one ought to confuse what happens with this particular old technology, Silvertip, with what will occur in the future," the governor told the Platts newswire.

"Unless people are willing to park their cars and move into a cave and live naked and eat nuts, we're going to continue to produce energy and that energy needs to be moved to the source of consumption," Schweitzer added.

The sponsor of Keystone XL, Alberta-based TransCanada Corp., sounded a note similar to Schweitzer's yesterday in saying its line would be drilled 25 feet beneath the Yellowstone, compared with the 5 to 8 feet of water cover for the ill-fated Silvertip (Greenwire, July 6).

TransCanada's agreement to implement 57 conditions beyond existing PHMSA standards for the XL line "clearly demonstrates that we are committed not just to the safety of our pipeline, but the safety of the environment," company spokesman Terry Cunha said yesterday.

Montana activists at the Resource Council, however, aim to see the company go further by adhering to dozens of extra safety and transparency requirements that can be pursued under a state law known as the Major Facilities Siting Act. Among those proposed state-level conditions are the submission of a wide-ranging emergency response plan for public review; a promise to cover the costs of restoring water supplies in case of contamination during the construction or operation of the XL line; and the engagement of soil scientists to help restore land disturbed by the pipeline's construction to its original condition.

The spill also has renewed calls for nationwide action. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a chief sponsor of broader pipeline safety legislation, said the ongoing budget debate has left little time to sit down with House-side counterparts to discuss a timeframe for moving the bill but predicted that the latest spill would galvanize action.

The Yellowstone incident "reminds us of the precarious nature of these pipelines," he said yesterday. "To stand by and not protect those who are nearby ... is not right."

'Benefits of transparency'

Baucus' letter to pipeline regulators referenced a conflict, first reported by the Associated Press, between the original timeframe Exxon first claimed to have shut the Silvertip line and the timeframe that it reported to PHMSA.

"We have already seen the benefits of transparency concerning this oil spill when federal documents showed that it took nearly twice as long to seal the pipeline as Exxon initially suggested," Baucus wrote.

ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing yesterday sought to tamp down any fallout from that discrepancy, telling reporters that the closure of "intermediate valves" made 49 minutes the official time between rupture and pipeline shutdown.

While Exxon has mounted a well-organized public-relations effort since the spill, a goal reinforced by widespread criticism of how BP PLC handled last year's Gulf of Mexico gusher, environmental groups appear less concerned this summer with taking specific aim at the company behind an oil disaster.

"I don't think the messaging around the company should matter as much as making sure they're doing what they can to clean this up," said the Natural Resources Defense Council's international program director, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, yesterday. "Especially when you have such a major permitting decision [coming on Keystone XL]."