COMMENT: Five oil spills in one week: 'accidents' or business as usual?

Damien Gillis
By Damien Gillis
April 4th, 2013

UPDATE: Since publication of this story this morning, yet another oil spill has come across the wire – a CP Rail spill from a derailment in northern Ontario – raising the total of spills this past week to SIX.

It’s been another appallingly bad week for proponents of pipeline safety and new oil infrastructure. If the industry’s woeful historical record – from the Exxon Valdez to BP’s Gulf of Mexico catastrophe to Enbridge’s trashing of the Kalamazoo – isn’t enough to turn people off of new pipelines and tanker routes, this slew of recent spills should seal the deal.

These incidents couldn’t have come at a worse time for the oil and pipeline industries, as US President Barack Obama prepares to announce his final decision in the coming months on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to Port Arthur, Texas.

Let’s review the record over the last week:   

  This past friday, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline coated the streets of Mayflower, Arkansas, with what CNN describes as a “smelly, asphalt-like crude” (i.e. diluted bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands – the same kind the proposed Keystone XL would carry). These photos illustrate the effects of the spill on the sleepy Little Rock suburb – see the viral video captured by a local resident below.

• Enbridge was back at it again last week, with the fourth recorded spill in two months along its Norman Wells Pipeline through the Northwest Territories. The company has leaked an estimated million litres of oil since February, 2011, from this one pipeline, prompting the National Energy Board to order an engineering assessment of the chronically malfunctioning line.

• Meanwhile, back at the Alberta Tar Sands, Suncor was dealing with (and furiously downplaying) a leak from one of its massive waste ponds into the Athabasca River. This comes on the heels of a leaked memo to Conservative Resources Minister Joe Oliver, which acknowledged routine spillage from these ponds throughout the Tar Sands. 

• Over the weekend, Michigan was hit with another spill – this time up to 500 gallons of hydraulic oil spilled into the Lansing Grand River during an equipment malfunction at a local utility.

• For those who would look to rail as an alternative to pipelines for transporting oil, there was the derailment last week of a CP Rail train, spilling an estimated 30,000 gallons of its crude cargo in western Minnesota.

This latest spate of spills should give pause to President Obama as he contemplates the Keystone XL – and to Canadian citizens and lawmakers debating several new pipeline proposals of our own.

It’s time to put to rest the notion that oil spills are “accidents”. They are, rather, a routine function of the business of extracting, transporting, and consuming oil – a good reason to spend our energy and resources on developing sustainable alternatives, not further entrenching our dependence on fossil fuels through new oil infrastructure.

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues – especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada’s wild salmon. This column originally appeared in the Common Sense Canadian.

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