Regulatory Ills and Spills

by lizard

Regulation can be a mixed bag. There are some things that should be tightly regulated—pipelines for example—because failures to safeguard projects like the Keystone XL pipeline will result in disastrous environmental impacts. Even the Missoulian’s editorial board can pay lip service to that:

Oil leaks should not be a regular occurrence, yet Montana sees, on average, six small spills a year. In fact, at about the same time the Silvertip spill was discovered, another oil spill was discovered running into Cut Bank Creek on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. FX Energy Inc. is responsible for that pipeline.

In response to both spills, in July 2011 Gov. Brian Schweitzer created a new Pipeline Safety Review Council. The council’s three members – the heads of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Montana Department of Transportation – worked with the owners of Montana’s pipelines and federal regulators to come up with a concise set of recommended improvements. Those recommendations, released for public view in May 2012, ranged from requiring pipeline companies to make use of leak detection technology to setting up a system to notify the public when leaks occur.

The Department of Transportation is still conducting its investigation of “hazardous liquid pipelines” with an emphasis on pipelines that cross rivers. Currently, regulations at such crossings require pipelines to be at least 4 feet deep in most instances.

After the Silvertip oil spill, several pipeline companies took it upon themselves to update and improve more than a dozen pipeline/river crossings. They did so after federal regulators identified specific problems at specific crossings. Clearly, cooperation between federal and state officials and pipeline companies is more beneficial for all involved than fines and costly cleanups after a major spill.

All pipelines – existing and new – ought to adhere to strict guidelines that appropriately balance the benefits of pipelines against the potential environmental hazard they pose. Montana’s recent history provides an excellent example of the need for this balance, which is why Montana’s leaders in Congress ought to make sure any new federal regulations move us closer to achieving it.

Read that second to last paragraph closely. The Missoulian editorial board claims that several pipeline companies “took it upon themselves” to improve their infrastructure, but only AFTER federal regulators “identified specific problems”. How charitable, Missoulian editorial board.

It sure would have been nice if this editorial mentioned how the Keystone XL pipeline is shunning infrared sensors to detect leaks:

TransCanada Corp. (TRP), which says Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built, isn’t planning to use infrared sensors or fiber-optic cables to detect spills along the system’s 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) path to Texas refineries from fields in Alberta.

Pipeline companies have been slow to adopt new leak detection technology, including infrared equipment on helicopters flying 80 miles an hour or acoustic sensors that can identify the sound of oil seeping from a pinhole-sized opening. Instead of tools that can find even the smallest leaks, TransCanada will search for spills using software-based methods and traditional flyovers and surveys.

On the flip side of the regulation spectrum, anyone who enjoys getting food from local farmers at local markets should be very concerned about what the FDA is up to:

Farmers market producers across Montana fear proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations could put them under the same scrutiny as big corporate farms, and drive many of them out of business in the process.

“It would be pretty disastrous for a lot of small producers in Montana,” said Stephanie Potts, of Grow Montana, a nonprofit food policy organization. “It looks like it was put together by somebody who’s never seen Montana or agriculture in the West.”

The FDA standards for “Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” and related rules have comment deadlines of Nov. 15. After that, they go to a second round of revision, but the chance to change them grows slimmer.

This is the bad side of regulation, where imposing the standards needed for massive agriculture production will negatively impact small-scale food producers. For Big Ag, reducing consumer choice is good business. But for those of us who would like to choose and support local food producers, it’s bad news.

Maybe in the not-so-distant future foodies will be driven to underground black markets to get their illicit produce and cheese. I bet Dave Budge would be in, right Dave?


  1. Big Swede

    Sensors or not moving oil via rail is still more dangerous than by buried pipe.

    By the way where a rail lines mostly located? Along thousands of miles of rivers.




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