Back in July 2011, Alexis Bonogofsky caught a whiff of something putrid while checking on her goats at her farm along Montana's Yellowstone River. The smell was oil. The source was an underwater leak in ExxonMobil's Silvertip Pipeline upstream in Laurel.
It's a story Bonogofsky has shared repeatedly over the years. And it's alarmingly similar to the tale recently told by North Dakota farmer Steve Jensen who, on Sept. 29, discovered a 20,600-barrel spill while harvesting wheat. The North Dakota spill originated from a pipeline owned by Tesoro Logistics, and critics are now assailing Tesoro for failing to respond to anomalies detected during a pipeline inspection mere weeks before the spill.
The incident comes just months after a rupture in a Phillips 66 pipeline released 400 barrels of gasoline on the Crow Reservation and caused an estimated $1.9 million in property damage.
The oil industry appears largely inept when it comes to monitoring its own infrastructure, even after British Petroleum's devastating Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico sparked global criticism in 2010. Federal officials fined ExxonMobil $1.7 million in March of this year for violations leading to the Yellowstone spill. Four days after the penalty letter was mailed, a nearly 70-year-old ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., releasing 5,000 barrels of crude onto the streets of a residential subdivision. Some 40 homes were evacuated, and residents complained of headaches, nausea and other health problems. Cleanup was ongoing in Mayflower when, a week after the rupture, ExxonMobil received the Green Cross for Safety medal from the National Safety Council during a fundraising dinner in Houston.
Despite annual pipeline failures and scores of subsequent lawsuits, these oil companies continue to exhibit a kindergarten-level inability to learn from their own mistakes. U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have put Montana at the forefront of the push for increased scrutiny. The two responded to the Yellowstone spill by demanding federal officials conduct a nationwide study of pipeline crossings at waterways.
Yet the senators undercut that diligent work with unwavering faith in the promise of another pipeline, the Keystone XL. Baucus and Tester have both made a habit of pressing President Barack Obama, as recently as this September, to approve the pipeline and allow construction to begin as soon as possible.
Keystone boosters trumpet things like jobs, energy independence, economic stimulus. But Montanaand, now, North Dakotashould know better than most that until the oil industry proves it can do better, it might be best to ease off the quest to add 800,000 barrels of pressurized crude a day to the equation.