Politics & Policy

Built to Spill?

What to make of the recent oil spill in Arkansas?

These days, you’re not a story until you have a parody Twitter account.

By that measure, the Arkansas oil spill caused by the rupture of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline has made it. Behold the modestly followed feed of “@ExxonCares,” a fake PR operation doing fake damage control. It’s often funny enough — even if, by making lefty jokes about the most despised brand in the most reviled industry in the world, it is picking some of the lowest hanging tar balls there are. Take for example this gag trying to wring the last drop of political relevance from Todd Akin, which came across my transom when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow retweeted it:

 

As I replied at the time, I get the bit, but in this case it’s actually true. The environment does have a way of shutting down oil spills, namely by eating them. But in politics, the sort likeliest to rely on smug appeals to “science F(or) T(he) W(in)” in the place of actual arguments turn out to be pretty selective in the science to which they appeal.

This isn’t to say oil spills are natural and good. Most of them aren’t “natural,” and even if they were all so, Nature can be pretty awful (just ask a Haitian). But the occasional oil spill is a cost of doing business — literally. Individuals, firms, and communities should put that cost up against the benefits of running the global economy on recycled dinosaurs instead of (currently) more expensive and less reliable “renewables.” In fact, that sort of calculation actually happens, billions of times during billions of transactions each and every day.

For such cost-benefit analysis to be a good one, you need good information, and a little perspective. That’s not something you’ll get from the usual-suspect alarmists (typified by this YouTube guy) who take the spill in Mayflower, Ark., to be lockdown evidence of the irredeemable evil of oil companies, the irremediable catastrophe of all oil spills, and the irrationalityof building new pipelines like Keystone.

The Arkansas spill, while undoubtedly a major drag, reflects none of these things.

Let’s rehearse the facts: For reasons still unknown, on March 29, a 20-foot long, two-inch wide gash opened in ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which carries Canadian tar-sands oil to Texas. Exxon says between 3,500 and 5,000 barrels of oil spilled; a class-action suit already filed by residents of the town of Mayflower, where the spill occurred, claims it’s more like 19,000. (For reference, 16,000 barrels fills an Olympic swimming pool.) About 20 homes were evacuated. Some ducks died; others were lovingly scrubbed with toothbrushes and dish soap and sent on their way. As Reuters reported, within half an hour of the first 911 calls about the spill, a representative from Exxon was on the scene. Within 24 hours, Exxon’s agents were writing checks to the evacuated residents. Within 72 hours, over a hundred Exxon workers were in Mayflower, “a number that would eventually swell to more than 600 from across the country, including company doctors, communication specialists and wildlife experts,” according to Reuters. EPA officials, as well as officials from the Arkansas Departments of Environmental Quality and Health, were also on scene.

Though workers initially had to wear masks around some parts of the site, air tests conducted regularly since the spill have shown no widespread risks for humans. There will likely be some lasting, if thankfully highly localized, environmental impact around Lake Conway, where the spill occurred. The 70-year-old pipeline may be rerouted to distance it from local water sources.

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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