National oil pipeline likely to cause natural catastrophe

By Max Miller – Staff Writer – nmiller@unca.edu

Arkansas consistently ranks high in obesity and low in well being, and let us not forget it is the birthplace of Wal-Mart.

Last week, the state literally suffered another blot on its already spotty record, when an Exxon Mobil oil pipeline burst and caused a major oil spill a scant 25 miles north of Little Rock.

But Arkansas is not alone in its misery. Utah also experienced a similar pipeline rupture in mid-March, which spilled 27,500 gallons of diesel fuel just miles from a National Wildlife Refuge. Both incidents bode ill for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, a massive project that would extend from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

President Obama has shown mixed support for the pipeline. He rejected the construction of the largest section of the line, between Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Neb., based on evidence of its harmful effects on Nebraska’s plains, but endorsed the southernmost section, which would connect Cushing, Okla., and Nederland, Texas.

If these latest disasters are not enough to sway his decision once and for all, similar faults along more than 4,000 miles of proposed pipeline will. But by then, it will be too late. The follies of constructing such a massive pipeline can be seen on a smaller scale in these recent incidents, and they must be accounted for before oil companies bully the Obama administration into approving the Keystone XL Pipeline.

A major similarity between the Keystone XL Pipeline and the two faulty pipelines is the kind of oil they carry.  These pipelines transport heavy crude oil extracted from tar sands in Canada, which most pipelines are not equipped to handle because it must be pumped at a higher temperature and with more pressure than traditional oil. The problem was exacerbated in the Arkansas pipeline because the pipeline was transporting 95,000 barrels of oil per day, which is 30,000 more barrels per day than it was designed to contain.

When analyzing the viability of the Keystone XL Pipeline, it is important to remember oil companies can and will pull this kind of stunt. Overexerting pipelines in this manner is not just a testament to corporate greed, but also criminally negligent, as the 22 people evacuated from their homes in the wake of the Arkansas incident can surely attest. The proposed pipeline would cross three states and two Canadian provinces. Trusting oil companies with such a large-scale, multinational endeavor is unwise given their track record.

In fact, the oil companies appear to agree they are screwing up on an embarrassing scale. In the wake of the Arkansas spill, Exxon Mobil has maintained a tight media stranglehold by closing off the pipeline command center and cleanup sites. The latter areas are of special importance, for heavy crude oil is notoriously difficult to clean up because, instead of floating in water, it sinks and forms a thick, sludgy mess. It is no small wonder the company intends to hide the severity of the spill.

Chevron, the company behind the Utah spill, has not been as lucky in concealing their oversights. In addition to the recent spill, two other major spills occurred in 2010 due to faulty pipelines owned by the company, leaking more than 50,000 gallons of heavy crude oil. These incidents highlighted the unpreparedness of major oil corporations, and the two years have proven the companies have not made any improvements.

The bottom line is oil companies will cut corners as much as possible to turn a profit, even when they are transporting a considerably more dangerous product. They cannot be entrusted with a project on the scale of the Keystone Pipeline XL. The only possible compromise would be for strict government regulation of the pipeline, an idea oil companies would not likely be gung-ho to consider. And even if they could reach an agreement, the result would create uneasy implications about the government’s control of the vast oil supply or about the oil corporations sticking their dirty fingers in the governmental cookie jar.

The risks behind constructing the Keystone XL Pipeline are too great, as events both recent and past have proven. Hopefully, greed or desperation will not prevail and cause the Obama administration to approve the pipeline’s construction.

The last time a vile threat with origins in Arkansas was allowed to develop into a nationwide trend, we got Wal-Mart Supercenters in every city. This time, it could be oil spills.

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