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Will Tar Sands Pipeline Spills be the New Normal?

J. Mijin Cha

One of the main arguments against the Keystone XL pipeline is the damage that would be done to surrounding areas in the case of oil spills, particularly to sensitive environmental areas like the Ogallala aquifer. And, it turns out Keystone's opponents are right to be worried. Two years ago, a pipeline operated by an Alberta-based energy company, Enbridge, spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek, the Kalamazoo River and Morrow Lake in southwest Michigan. Residents in the area are still suffering from lingering health effects from the spill.

Now, almost two years to the date, the Enbridge pipeline had yet another spill, this time pouring more than 50,000 gallons of oil into rural Wisconsin. In fact, between 1999 and 2010, there were 804 spills from Enbridge pipelines, releasing five million gallons of oil into the environment—roughly half of what was spilled in the Exxon-Valdez accident. The number of spills is damaging the environment and resident’s health but they are not hurting the company’s profits. In the fourth quarter of 2011 alone, Enbridge had earnings of over $300 million.

An investigation into the Michigan leak by the National Transportation Safety Board found significant negligence on the part of Enbridge, both to stop a preventable leak and also in mismanaging the aftermath of the leak, so much so that the NTSB Chairman likened Enbridge officials to Keystone Kops in their ability to respond to the spill. The report of the investigation is pretty damning and highlights the disturbing inadequacy of, and in some cases complete lack of, Enbridge’s safety and precautionary measures.

The investigation also pointed to the failure of the regulatory system to impose strong health and safety regulations and the very negative reality of deregulation. Deregulation has left too much authority to assess risk and correct it in the hands of those that are supposed to be regulated. Nor surprisingly, when left to their own devices, Enbridge chose to cut corners and put the public at risk to increase their corporate profits.

This last point cannot be repeated enough: Enbridge chose to let the public absorb the risk and subsequent cost (the Michigan clean up cost over $800 million) of clean up, yet they are posting remarkable earnings quarter after quarter. The corporation is reaping all the benefits and all the public is left with is poisoned water and land. The idea that corporations will willingly do what is in the public interest is disproven over and over again by the continual damage inflicted by the financial industry, by the oil and gas disasters, etc. Throughout all these disasters, the banks and corporations get bailed out and return to record-breaking profits while taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

We pointed out last week why we have regulations: to protect the public. Yet, regulations are continually under attack. If the continued push for deregulation is successful, we can look forward to more spills, more contamination, and more corporate profit padding while the public absorbs the cost of cleaning up the messes.