Looks small, doesn’t it? Just a black patch in a vast sea of brown soil.
A couple of days ago, a Greenpeace photographer flew over the site of one of the largest onshore oil spills in United States history. It had taken over a week for the Tesoro spill near Tioga, North Dakota, to be reported to the press. And that was only after the farmer who discovered the spill on his land, Steve Jensen, had reported it to the local authorities. Jensen discovered the oil merrily spurting six inches high out of a “perfectly round, quarter-inch hole” with “about 100 pounds pressure,” and “it had been leaking for awhile.”
How long? Long enough for a quarter-inch hole to spout over 800,000 gallons of oil into what used to be a wheat field. Long enough for Jensen to have smelled the scent of oil on the air ‘for days’ ahead of his tour of that particular back field.
I spent quite a bit of time looking at the pictures of this spill before I realized what I wasn’t seeing: The usual pod of television camera set-ups. Thus far, more than two weeks after the spill, the only photos you are likely to find are from Greenpeace.
So, why the lack of interest? Is it because this spill seems to be out in the middle of nowhere, and Tesoro insists that no groundwater has been contaminated, no wildlife harmed? Jensen has said he expects that he will not “be able to farm that land for a few years and there’ll be compensation for sure.” Negotiations with the company have not yet begun. “That is going to come later. We’re looking at a two to three-year cleanup.”
For the moment, the cause of the leak is being blamed on the corrosion of the 20-year-old pipeline. The delay in reporting the incident was first blamed on the government shutdown, but I think blame is more clearly on the fact that in North Dakota, state authorities are not required to report oil spills to the press.
In the United States, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) manages pipeline safety through its aptly named Office of Pipeline Safety. There are 100 inspectors for 2.5 million miles of pipeline, and 1.5 full-time employees to oversee the 450 emergency response plans for 450 facilities nationwide.
Here’s a map of oil and gas pipelines in the United States.
And here’s an interactive map of major spill or leak events from 1986-2012.
A similar amount of oil to that of the Tesoro spill leaked into the Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill of 2010. That clean-up has been estimated to cost over $1 billion, plus a $3.7 million fine for Enbridge. For some perspective on those amounts, consider that Enbridge filed a revenue of $1.67 billion – for the second quarter of 2013 alone.
What puzzles me is that this energy source is still referred to as good, cheap energy. Cheap for who?
So far, it looks like Tesoro got lucky. This time.
If environmental disaster falls on deaf ears, is it still a disaster?