Almost everything about fossil fuels, by definition, happens in the dark. The organisms that form coal, gas and oil form in the dark; they are extracted from deep dark places that are under water, under mountains, beneath broad plains. From well to tank, most oil never sees the light of day unless there’s a leak, or a spill.
And then, by the time we find it, damage has already been done.
Back in 2013, the one of the largest on-land spills in the United States took place beneath a remote piece of crop land near Tioga, North Dakota. It took several days for the farmer who owned the property to discover the spill and then report it. It took several more days to stop the spill, which was due to a leaking pipe. And it took another week or so for the authorities to report the spill to the press. The spill was estimated at 865,000 gallons (20,000 barrels).
That spill necessitated a clean-up effort that is still ongoing. The most recent cost estimate I could find online put the cost at $42 million – and that was over a year ago, when approximately one-third of the spill had been removed. From the most recent article I could find on the spill, on Oil Price.com: “The 2013 spill contaminated around 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site grew to 35 acres to accommodate excavated soil stockpiles from digging 50 feet deep and then baking hydrocarbons out of the soil.” The Oil Price article was actually on another, more recent spill, that of 17,000 gallons (400 barrels) of oil and 120,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastewater near Marmath.
Overall, there have been over 300 oil spills in North Dakota alone in less than two years, most of them unreported. And that doesn’t include the Dec. 5 spill into the Ash Coulee Creek of 176,000 gallons (4100 barrels) approximately 150 miles from where Standing Rock protesters have been demonstrating against an oil pipeline they say will endanger their water source.
North Dakota can stand in here as a microcosm of oil-drilling locations around the world.
In general, oil spills are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest where there’s no one to hear it – if there’s no one around to witness a spill, then as far as authorities and oil companies are concerned, it might as well not have happened. Compiling a global list of incidents in which oil escapes its pipelines, even just the known offshore and onshore spills, would be a virtually impossible task, even if oil companies were ready and willing to expose the underbelly of the business.
This opacity when it comes to the collateral damage of our oil dependency extends to other aspects of the oil industry, from the funding of climate change skeptics through ‘dark money’ to the fighting of environmental regulations around the world.
So, what to make of the nomination of an oil company chief to the United States’ highest diplomatic post, that of Secretary of State, key advisor on foreign policy and fourth in line to the Presidency? Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (largest U.S. oil company by revenue), is undoubtedly an extremely able individual, manager and businessman. He is also the person who said, just a couple of months before the big spill in North Dakota, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers? (…) My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do (…) The rest is risk management.”
The question is, where does the management begin, and where does it end? How much of this management will truly be brought to light?