ExxonMobil's Pipeline Spill is a Revelation

On July 1, an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil poured out of ExxonMobil's Silvertip pipeline and into the Yellowstone River in Montana. Significant accumulations of oil have been found more than 40 miles downriver, and traces of oil have floated twice as far. While the cause of the spill has not been determined, speculation has centered on high river waters that could have exposed the pipe to damage.

In spite of numerous events like the BP oil spill and the Massey mine explosion, incidents like the Yellowstone River spill seem to be required to make clear the need for oversight of industry. "We need to figure out how this happened and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Our water is our most precious resource and we’ve got to take every reasonable precaution to protect it," Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) said July 5 about ExxonMobil's oil pipeline accident. It seems it took an oil spill to change Rehberg's attitude toward regulation. It was only six weeks ago that he offered an amendment that would weaken the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration.

The Silvertip pipeline, a 20-year-old underground pipe, had recently drawn the attention of federal regulators. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, cited seven safety violations in a December 2010 letter and more "probable violations" in an additional letter in February. The problems included "inadequate pipeline markers in a housing development, a section of pipeline over a ditch covered with potentially damaging material and debris, vegetation in housing area covering a portion of line that prevented aerial inspections, and a line over a canal not properly protected against corrosion." ExxonMobil says that it had corrected all the violations and, in a statement issued less than 48 hours after the pipeline burst, the company said that its pipeline "met all regulatory requirements."

Over the past ten years, there have been eight "major" accidents along the more than 6,500 miles of pipeline that stretch across the state of Montana.

A congressional inquiry into the Yellowstone River spill will begin July 14 with a hearing before the Subcommittee on Railroad, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, part of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The day before, two other Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittees will hold a hearing entitled "Reducing Regulatory Burdens, Ensuring the Flow of Commerce, and Protecting Jobs: A Common Sense Approach to Ballast Water Regulation."

The tension between these two hearings is clear: as soon as one subcommittee finishes investigating the "burden" of an effective regulatory system, another will begin investigating how damage to the Silvertip pipeline went unaddressed until disaster struck.

House leadership has made "regulatory reform" a centerpiece of the agenda for this Congress, holding dozens of hearings across several committees. These anti-regulatory bills and amendments have filled the calendar – and perhaps none is more prominent than the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which is expected to be marked up soon.

The REINS Act would require both the House and the Senate to approve every new agency rule with an estimated economic impact (either cost or benefit) of $100 million or more or any rule with a "significant effect" on prices, competitiveness, productivity, or other economic factors. It would cover nearly every aspect of government operations: not only health, safety, and environmental protections, but also many rules covering civil rights, Medicaid, Head Start, taxes, and even subsidies to industry. The bill would give a congressional veto to agencies' safeguards.

If Rehberg meant what he said at the end of his statement ("the better approach is to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again"), he would be opposing legislation like the REINS Act and fighting to ensure that agencies like the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have the resources they need to establish and enforce a system of public protections that helps keep national resources like water, air, and food safe.

Image in teaser by flickr user USFWS Mountain Prairie, used under a Creative Commons license.

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