Revisiting last summer’s pipeline safety meeting

In doing some research on the oil spill disaster on the Yellowstone River, I dug this article out of the Tribune archives. I don’t have the ability to link to it since it was archived, but I thought it would be useful to post the complete story here given what’s happening on the Yellowstone River.

Oil from a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline is seen in the Yellowstone River and along its banks near Laurel, Mont., Saturday July 2, 2011. The pipeline break was contained early Saturday morning but the spill stretched over dozens of miles.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Schweitzer: State’s oil wells have safeguards

HELENA – With millions of gallons of oil continuing to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Tuesday convened a meeting with state officials to analyze the state’s capacity to respond to a catastrophic oil spill in Montana.

Schweitzer met with top officials from the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, Department of Environmental Quality, Disaster and Emergency Services and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to find out what the state is doing to ensure a major spill doesn’t happen. He also asked what response plans are in place if a worst-case scenario should occur.

“After church and at the bar, and in coffee shops people are watching what’s happening in the Gulf and they’re wondering if that could happen in Montana,” Schweitzer said.

According to Tom Richmond, administrator for the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, the well that’s gushing oil into the Gulf is about 100 times bigger than even the largest wells in Montana. Richmond said all of Montana’s oil wells combined don’t produce as much oil per day as what’s flowing into the Gulf of Mexico daily.

“Montana has a complex geologic environment, and some of that environment actually helps reduce our risk,” Richmond said.

He said most of Montana’s oil reservoirs are low-pressure, making the possibility of a catastrophic oil well blowout unlikely. In addition, multiple safeguards are in place at every well to prevent blowouts or contain spills if they occur, Richmond said.

The most likely cause of a worst-case scenario spill would come from oil pipelines, state officials said. If a pipeline were to leak near a body of water such as the Yellowstone River, which flows through the heart of oil and gas country in eastern Montana, all bets are off.

Schweitzer said pipeline officials recently told him that safeguards were in place to ensure that leaks would be found quickly and that there is little danger to Montana’s waterways. However, Schweitzer pointed to a recent incident in Utah where a leaking pipeline spilled an estimated 33,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek that flows into the Great Salt Lake.

“How did that happen?” Schweitzer asked.

DEQ Director Richard Opper said there are more stringent standards and requirements in place for newer pipelines, which make it easier for companies to detect and stop leaks before they create major problems.

“I think the ability to detect a leak in a newer pipeline is much, much greater than what we’ve seen in the past,” Opper said. “Does that mean we can avert all disasters? No, not necessarily, but it does mean the shut off would occur more quickly than in an older pipeline.”

Opper said he hopes that if there ever is a leak from a pipeline in Montana that the oil doesn’t get into state waterways.

“If you keep it out of the water, it’s a whole lot easier to clean up,” Opper said. “It really ups the ante for cleanup if it manages to reach water.”

Unlike mining companies in the state, oil producers and oil pipeline companies aren’t required to post cleanup bonds to cover the cost of environmental disasters should a spill occur.

Schweitzer said after the meeting that he’s going to look at the possibility of introducing legislation in the next session to require oil and gas companies to post a bond to ensure the state doesn’t get stuck with cleanup costs.

“It’s certainly something we’re going to look it,” Schweitzer said. “When the answer comes to me that it’s the financial integrity of the company we’re depending on, well companies come and go, but the Yellowstone River has been the same for the last 25,000 years or so,” Schweitzer said. “We want to have some certainty that Montanans aren’t stuck with cleanup.”

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. is hoping to start construction soon on the 1,980-mile Keystone XL pipeline, part of a $12 billion investment to move crude extracted from Canada’s oil sands to refineries in the United States. That pipeline would go through Montana.

Opper said he has investigated allegations that the company is not using a thick enough material for its pipe. He said he found that the company plans to use a stronger but slightly thinner material that will be sturdy enough for the job.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.