Oil Spill in the Yellowstone River: Implications for the Keystone XL Pipeline

Poplar PipelineOn January 17, 2015, the Poplar Pipeline, owned by Bridger Pipeline, ruptured and spilled 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. The pipeline, carrying oil from Wyoming to North Dakota, leaked just upstream of Glendive, Montana and contaminated residents’ drinking with carcinogens. Glendive residents were particularly upset, as they weren’t informed of the danger until two days later.

Moreover, this is not Bridger Pipeline’s first oil leakage incident. Between 2006 and 2014 the company was responsible for nine incidents totaling 11,000 gallons of spilt crude. Bridger’s sister company (Belle Fourche Pipeline) caused 21 spills over the same time period, resulting in over 270,000 gallons leaked.

Pipelines are notorious for rupturing and endangering people and animals in the surrounding area.  Those that cross waterways are notably even more dangerous.  Corrosion and river scour (the movement of sediment that exposes pipelines) are two of the biggest problems for under-river pipelines.  In July 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline experienced such problems and spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River.

These recent pipeline ruptures and consequent oil spills into the Yellowstone River naturally direct attention to the most prominent pipeline debate: Keystone XL. Currently debated in Congress and by concerned citizens nationally, the Keystone XL Pipeline would cross nearly 2,000 streams, rivers and reservoirs, thus heightening concerns about the likelihood of future leaks. Keystone XL is also an unusually large pipeline–three times as wide as the Poplar Pipeline. This means that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not only transport more oil, but spill more oil were it to rupture.

One would think that the recent Poplar Pipeline oil spill would have received considerable news coverage in the midst of the Keystone XL Pipeline debate. Instead, the spill went largely uncovered by many major news sources, including CNN and Fox. Additionally, no news sources connected the Poplar spill to the Keystone XL pipeline, which was approved by the Senate last week.

Jamie Henn, a spokesman of 350.org and opponent of the Keystone XL Pipeline, commented that even “if they’re not spilling oil into rivers, they’re still spilling carbon into the atmosphere.” All politicians, regardless of affiliation, need to connect the dots of environmental policy. Past performance predicts future performance: with so many pipeline spills recently, doesn’t Keystone XL pose a greater risk than reward? Hopefully President Obama will keep this in mind as he decides whether or not to veto the Keystone XL pipeline bill.

Aine Boyle