Built to Spill?
What to make of the recent oil spill in Arkansas?


Daniel Foster

Exxon has of course promised, and is anyway legally obligated, to clean the spill and compensate those affected. They’ve already ponied up 15 grand to an elementary school near the site — the money will be used to throw a party — and the school is apparently asking for more to pay for a new science lab.  Some combination of the legal process, extrajudicial shaming, and Exxon’s public-relations calculus will determine how much the company is ultimately liable for.

Would it have been better for everyone involved if that gash had never opened in the Pegasus pipeline? You betcha. But in the aftermath of the spill it certainly seems — to borrow one Obama cabinet official’s term — the system worked. No victim is going undercompensated, that’s for sure. Another bit from that Reuters story: “‘They said if it didn’t cost what I gave you, take the rest and keep it in your pocket,’ said Andrews, the Mayflower resident. ‘If I said something cost $140, he said $200. He said he liked round numbers.’”)

But, you say, isn’t this a “teachable moment,” aren’t there “lessons to be learned” here? Shouldn’t this make us think twice about pipelines instead of building the mother of them all, the Keystone XL? If anything, examining spills like the recent one should remind us that oil pipelines are already quite safe. Just .0000048 percent of oil transported by pipeline in the U.S. last year was leaked. Oil spills in populated areas are so rare that there actually isn’t much legal precedent for a class-action suit like Mayflower’s.

And pipeline transport is getting even safer. Pegasus, a fairly typical crude-carrying line for its age (65 years), has shutoff valves every 18 miles in the stretch where the spill occurred. Keystone, if it is ever approved, will have hundreds of much more highly concentrated remote-controlled valves, and its flow will be monitored by hundreds of thousands of individual sensors feeding information via satellite to safety teams that can shut down leaks practically in real time. Keystone will also be buried deeper, on average, and use extra-thick steel in the vicinity of water supplies. In fact, those who want to see oil transport made safer and cleaner should want pipelines like Keystone to be built, in order to retire old workhorses like Pegasus.

So yes, there probably is a lesson to be learned in Mayflower. But it ain’t that we should get out of the oil business. 

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.


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