A worker walks past a refinery in North Dakota. An oil spill in the northwest part of the state was only revealed to the public 12 days after the fact. (Image Source: Reuters)
On September 29, 2013, a North Dakota farmer discovered an oil spill while harvesting wheat on his farm. The oil spill, which was caused by a pipeline rupturing underground, was destroying his crops, and would spread over more than 7 acres of land, the size of seven football fields. While this oil spill, the largest in the state and far larger than another oil spill in Arkansas earlier in 2013, did little damage, the public did not actually know about the oil spill until yesterday, some 12 days after the fact. This begs the question of whether states can be trusted to report on disasters such as oil spills, especially in light of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy.
The oil spill happened in a remote part of northwest North Dakota, near Tioga. The pipeline system itself, owned by Tesoro Logistics LP, carries oil from the Bakken oil sands in the northern part of North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan to a refinement facility in Columbus in the center part of the state. By the time the spill was contained, more than 20,600 barrels of oil had leaked on to the farmland. While small in comparison to some of the sea-based oil spills (such as the BP disaster in 2010), it is still a very large amount of oil to be spilled on a regular basis.
Thankfully, the Tesoro oil spill got lucky due to the source of the spill being on hard clay, making seepage to into the local water system highly unlikely. Still, the fact that the oil spill went unreported, even to North Dakota Governor Jim Dalrymple, for 12 days leaves a lot of questions. While Tesoro got lucky in avoiding significant environmental damage, what would happen if the soil was softer, as it is further south in the state? How much time would it take for state officials to know about it then? How opaque can these companies be in terms of the damage done to the land?
These questions are important, especially in light of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy. North Dakota is one of the states the Keystone XL Pipeline passes through, though not the controversial section of the pipeline. Most of the pipeline cuts through large, uninhabited regions of the country, where people will not be able to effectively monitor the condition of the pipelines at all times. What if a spill were to happen, and it took a couple days for anyone to even notice? And what if, even then, the companies in control of the pipeline keep quiet on it until they feel ready to discuss it, usually after it has been contained? What then? Transparency is key in making sure the Keystone XL pipeline actually gets the political support it needs. Environmentalists may be onto something if spills like this happen and nobody bothers to report on it.