LAST FRIDAY AFTERNOON, heavy crude oil began flowing out of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline and into the town of Mayflower, Ark. The company says that at least several thousand and at most 10,000 barrels of oil flowed into yards, down a street and into a storm drain. The quick deployment of 3,600 feet of boom prevented the oil from draining into nearby Lake Conway, but ExxonMobil has had to dispatch 15 vacuum trucks and 33 storage tanks to clean up the mess. It’s another oily reminder that, for now, the exceptional advances in living standards that the world’s advanced economies have seen still rely on the ready abundance of a volatile, toxic sludge. The challenge is dealing rationally with that messy reality.
Inevitably, the pipeline spill has been folded into the fight over another pipeline. Yet the Keystone XL, studied and then restudied for years, would be a state-of-the-art pipeline with an array of safety features — 20,000 leak sensors and automatic shut-off valves designed to rapidly stop the flow of oil in case of a rupture.
Instead, the Arkansas spill should focus attention on the half-million miles of less-advanced high-volume pipelines that carry oil, gas and other hazardous materials across the country every hour of every day. A lot of them are old. The leaky section of the Pegasus pipeline dated to the late 1940s. Given that, and the sheer scale of this continent-spanning operation, there will occasionally be accidents. Last year a natural gas pipeline exploded in Springfield, Mass. The year before that, a thousand barrels of oil spilled into the Yellowstone River.
That doesn’t mean the country should simply accept such events as inevitable. A recent Congressional Research Service report points out that Congress should examine pipeline inspector staffing levels. The government could establish more comprehensive standards on automatic or remote shut-off valves — the presence of remote valves are probably a major reason why more oil didn’t spew from the Pegasus. If those aren’t practical to install all over the extant pipeline system, the feds should at least consistently encourage or require hydrostatic testing and better leak detection; a recent federal study found that, right now, passersby are as likely as pipeline officials to spot trouble. The National Academy of Sciences will release a report this summer assessing whether there are unique problems involved in transporting low-grade Canadian tar sands oil; the government should be ready to apply new regulations there, too, if necessary.
One reason to allow extraction and transportation of fossil fuel on American soil is that, if the U.S. government doesn’t, high demand means all of that will happen elsewhere, often in places that care much less about the environment. For that logic to work, U.S. standards must be high.