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As Exxon Crude Oil Spills into Yellowstone River, Obama Mulls New Pipeline from Canada to Texas

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Oil giant Exxon Mobil faces mounting criticism of its cleanup efforts after one of its oil pipelines ruptured on Friday and leaked 42,000 gallons of crude oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River. The company initially downplayed the incident by saying it would only affect 10 miles of the river, but state officials say the oil has already stretched over 240 miles to near the North Dakota border. The spill comes as the Obama administration considers a massive new oil pipeline called the Keystone XL that would carry corrosive tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would cross the Yellowstone River as well as the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater aquifer in the U.S. We speak with Alexis Bonogofsky, a family farmer who lives along the Yellowstone River and was briefly hospitalized after suffering from what doctors diagnosed as acute hydrocarbon exposure. We’re also joined by Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The oil giant Exxon Mobil is facing mounting criticism over its handling of the cleanup of a large oil spill in Montana. On Friday night, an oil pipeline ruptured beneath the Yellowstone River near the city of Billings, leaking as much as 42,000 gallons of crude oil. Initially, Exxon Mobil downplayed the incident, saying it would only affect 10 miles of the river, but state officials say the spill has already stretched over 240 miles to near the North Dakota border.

In addition, records from the Department of Transportation indicate that it took Exxon 56 minutes to seal the leak, nearly twice as long as what the company officials had publicly said. The spill’s cleanup has also been hampered because the Yellowstone River is at flood stage. At spots, the river is flowing too high and swiftly for crews to reach some of the damaged areas.

AMY GOODMAN: The oil spill occurs at a time when the Obama administration is considering approving a massive new oil pipeline called the Keystone XL that would carry corrosive tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would cross the Yellowstone River, as well as the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater aquifer in the United States.

We’re joined by two guests. Alexis Bonogofsky is a family farmer who lives in Billings, Montana, near the Blue Creek area along the Yellowstone River. She’s working as the tribal lands senior coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, briefly hospitalized on Monday after suffering from what doctors diagnosed as acute hydrocarbon exposure. And joining us in Washington D.C. is Anthony Swift, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, specializing in energy issues.

Let’s go to Alexis first in Montana. Can you describe what’s happened?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: It’s been kind of overwhelming. The last five days has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I woke up early Saturday morning, and I walked down to my pastures to do chores, and I had heard that the river was going to flood, and so I wanted to check on everything. And I walked down to our bottom pastures, and all I could smell was oil. And so, I got back up to the house, put on my waders and went down, because the water was so deep, and our whole summer pasture and our hay pastures were just covered in oil, a lot of globs of oil, but also a lot of sheen that covered the water. And I had not heard nothing about this. I checked our local paper on my phone, and I saw that there had been an oil spill in the Yellowstone River and that people upstream had been evacuated. It has just been non-stop ever since then trying to get answers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact of the fumes on you?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: Yeah, so, all day Saturday, I was out in the oil taking pictures and video of what has happened to our place. And Sunday, I was out with film crews, with journalists, and checking on our place. And then, Monday, I took another film crew down, and the fumes just—Monday morning, it just hit me, and I got dizzy, nauseous, headache, felt like I was going to pass out. I’ve never passed out before in my life. I have actually never gone to the emergency room in my life. And I could hardly—I started to get really unfocused. And so I had my mom drive me into the hospital, because my husband was actually heading to a press conference to confront the president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Company.

AMY GOODMAN: You got a meeting with the president of Exxon Mobil?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: I think unwillingly on his part. On Sunday, we actually got our first meeting with him, and we went to the Crown Plaza Hotel, downtown Billings, where they had their response center set up. And there was a press conference going on. And so, my husband and I went to—because we had had no information. They kept sending us to a hotline with operators who didn’t know anything. We couldn’t get a hold of anyone from Exxon. And our local officials kept telling us to call Exxon. And then, we would Exxon, and all we would get was an operator. So we went down to the response center, to the press conference, and they actually tried to kick us out of the press conference. There was a security guard from Exxon there. He told us that we were not allowed without press credentials. So we—you know, we kept pressing them and pressing them, and then, finally, one of their PR people said, “Well, the president of the pipeline company would like to meet with you privately.” So that was the first time we met with him. The second time was another press conference that the public wasn’t invited to, and my husband just showed up there, because we still weren’t getting the answers we needed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, could you tell me, before this incident occurred, what did you know—did you even know this pipeline was there? And did you know how deep it was? Because obviously the reports have come out now that it was only about, what, eight feet below the riverbed. Tell us what information you had before the incident occurred.

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: No, I mean, most people around here don’t think about that sort of thing, because we—it’s such an industrial town. We have three refineries. We have pipelines running everywhere. And we’ve got a coal-fired power plant in town. It’s a very industrialized corridor of the Yellowstone River, you know, so in the back of your head you know that there’s lots of pipelines. I mean, I have a natural gas pipeline running under my farm right now. But no, I mean this particular pipeline wasn’t something that people really thought about at all. So when it ruptured, I think everyone was shocked by it, because, you know, I guess in the back of people’s minds, they knew that there must be pipelines running under the Yellowstone, but it wasn’t something that people talked about or knew about.

AMY GOODMAN: And the relationship between the rising water, Alexis, and the pipeline, why you think the pipeline broke, why you think there’s been this massive oil spill?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: Well, I have my own reasons of why I think it broke. I think, you know, from what we’ve seen from the Department of Transportation records is that there’s been over, I think, seven or eight safety violations of this particular pipeline in the last year. But the rising waters puts a lot of pressure on pipelines that are underneath water systems, and a lot of debris is coming down the river right now because it’s so high, so it’s knocking down cottonwoods off the banks of the river, rocks. And, you know, really heavy objects are being thrown down the river right now. And if, over and over again, if something is hitting the bottom of the river, it probably, you know, ruptured the pipeline. And there was no casing on this pipeline. It was built in 1991, and there was no casing around it, so it was just the pipeline. So, it had no protection around it. And, you know, initially, Exxon said that it—you know, in the Department of Transportation documents, it said that it was 12 feet under the riverbed, but in reality it was six to eight feet under the riverbed.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to go to Washington, D.C., where, Alexis, we’re joining Anthony Swift, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, specializing in energy issues. Can you talk about what’s happening here and also this new pipeline that President Obama is on track to approve, though that is not a done deal, that would go from the tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through the area of Montana we’re talking about today?

ANTHONY SWIFT: Yes, I can. I should probably point out that the Exxon spill was on a pipeline that carried 40,000 barrels a day. The pipeline you just mentioned, Keystone XL, would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day, a type of oil that’s very corrosive and has some new risks that conventional oil does not. Now, this pipeline would go over Yellowstone, the Missouri River, through the Ogallala Aquifer, and cross nearly 2,000 rivers and reservoirs across the United States. And one thing that this Exxon spill on the Yellowstone shows is that our pipeline regulations are not really up to the task of ensuring that these pipelines operate in all conditions. And, you know, it’s clear that we need to ensure that our pipeline safety regs or regulations are ready before we consider building a massive pipeline across the Yellowstone River. I mean, to give you a point of reference, had this spill happened on Keystone XL, nearly a million gallons of toxic tar sands would have likely spilled out of Keystone XL, because of its higher capacity.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is the reason that Exxon Mobil needs to build such a long pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico? Are they expecting to refine the oil down in that area or ship it overseas, or what?

ANTHONY SWIFT: Well, I should probably say, Keystone XL is actually being built by a company called TransCanada, and they actually have built—their first oil pipeline in the United States was started in 2010, a pipeline called Keystone 1. That pipeline has had 12 spills already and is actually the first—the youngest pipeline in the United States to have been considered by regulators an imminent threat to safety, life and the environment. So, you know, this is a pipeline company that has already had significant problems with its first pipeline in the U.S.

The reason they want to build Keystone XL is they want to move crude to Gulf Coast refiners, it’s true. But I should probably point out that right now there are twice as many pipelines coming from Canada as Canada has crude to fill them, so there’s really no rush to building a large pipeline through our water supply before we’ve figured out the safety issues.

AMY GOODMAN: While residents are contending with the effects of the Exxon Mobil oil spill, the Obama administration is considering whether to approve the construction of this Keystone XL project that we’re talking about right now. But I wanted to go back to the governor of Montana, to hear what he had to say, speaking to PBS, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer explains why the Keystone XL pipeline will be safer.

BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Actually, in my conversations with TransCanada, the company that’s proposed the Keystone XL, they’ve assured me that, A, they use this boring technique so that none of these pipelines will be laid into these riverbeds, and secondly, instead of having humans involved in the shut-off devices—you see, this device that was placed along the Yellowstone River was actually controlled out of Houston, Texas. Yeah, you got it, in Montana, they had controls in Houston, Texas. And after some seven minutes, they started shutting the pipeline down. It took about 30 minutes. TransCanada has explained to me that across every river and stream in Montana, that they would have automatic shutdown valves and backed-up systems by humans, so that this kind of catastrophe would not and could not occur. First, the pipeline is not in the river, and secondly, there are automatic, immediate shutdown systems which Exxon Mobil did not have in the Silvertip.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Governor Schweitzer of Montana. Alexis Bonogofsky, your response?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: The thing about pipelines is, it’s not if it fails, it’s when it fails. And to say that it could not and would not happen is mind-boggling to me. You know, in one area, he says he doesn’t trust Exxon here, but then, you know, says he trusts Exxon to move big rigs through western Montana. You know, to me, these corporations are the same. Money is the bottom line for them. And, you know, safety is—they’re cutting corners on the Keystone pipeline. They’re using pipe that is—you know, that is thinner than they should. And this will happen over and over and over again until we decide as a country that we’re going to move away from dirty energy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Anthony Swift, your response to the Montana governor’s statement?

ANTHONY SWIFT: Well, I would say three things. One is, TransCanada’s emergency response system, rather than operating out of Houston, will be operating out of Calgary, hundreds of miles away from Montana and thousands of miles away from other states and rivers in the United States.

I would also say that Keystone 1 has shown that that claim is somewhat suspect, because, you know, the biggest spill on Keystone 1, a 21,000-gallon spill in North Dakota, was reported by a landowner who saw a geyser of oil rising 60 feet above the cottonwood trees. And it wasn’t until 50 minutes after that spill had happened that TransCanada was able to shut it down. So it seems odd that they’re claiming that they’ll have a much faster response time in theory than they’ve shown in practice.

And finally, I would say that, you know, the Exxon pipeline was built under the river, as well. I mean, we don’t know what happened, but Exxon estimated that it had been at one point as far as 12 feet below the river. TransCanada also plans to build the pipeline below the river, a little deeper. But still, we have not clearly determined all the safety issues posed by this corrosive crude, and we’ve found many pieces of information that would suggest this crude would be far more damaging if and when spilled.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask Anthony, Bill McKibben, Naomi Wolf—Naomi Klein and others have announced a plan to launch a civil disobedience campaign against the Keystone XL. But can you talk about other oil spills in the tar sands pipeline, what we should know about, for example, in Michigan?

ANTHONY SWIFT: Well, yes. In Kalamazoo, there was a very large tar sands pipeline spill, in Michigan. About a million gallons of tar sands was spilled in—I believe it was in July of 2010. They’re still cleaning up that river. Essentially, much of the oil was much heavier than the water, so it didn’t float above the water, couldn’t be contained. We won’t know what the long-term damages of that will be until years from now, likely. And, you know, we’ve seen in Canada information that suggests their pipelines have had leaks due to internal corrosion much more often than ours have. This pipeline—I mean, tar sands, the type of stuff that they’re moving is different from anything we’ve seen in our pipelines until recently. And it is basically a combination of tar and volatile natural gas liquids. These things increase the risk of explosion, of toxic vapors when a spill happens. I mean, there’s just a lot of issues that our emergency responders need to be aware of and a study that needs to be done to determine how an impact of such a spill could be contained and dealt with, before we, you know, decide to embark on this new piece of infrastructure blindly.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Anthony Swift, Natural Resources Defense Council, joining us from D.C., and Alexis Bonogofsky, family farmer, joining us from, well, just outside of Billings, Montana.

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