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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oil Spills Increasing

Air Date: Week of

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Clumps of oil mar the beach on Galveston Bay after an oil tanker collided with another ship and spilled 168,000 gallons of oil into the water. It’s the largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP Deep Water Horizon accident 4 years ago. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill was marked by a tanker spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil pipeline rupture in an Ohio nature reserve and a BP refinery leaking oil into Lake Michigan. Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International tells host Steve Curwood that with the oil production boom in North America has come with an increase in spills.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Exactly 25 years to the day after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, an oil barge off the Texas coast was hit by a ship and spilled as much as 168,000 gallons of bunker fuel into Galveston Bay. It’s the largest Gulf oil spill since the BP Deepwater horizon accident nearly four years ago. In the same week an oil pipeline leaked into a nature reserve in Ohio and a BP refinery spilled hundreds of gallons of crude into Lake Michigan. These days oil spills are increasingly common, according to Oil Change International. Lorne Stockman is their research director. Welcome to Living on Earth.

STOCKMAN: Hi. Great to be here.

CURWOOD: In brief, what are the dangers of oil spills? Why should people be so concerned about this?

STOCKMAN: Well, oil is an extremely toxic substance. It’s full of compounds which can make you very sick. It’s full of compounds that will kill plant life and kill wildlife. It’s very difficult to clean up. As we’ve seen with the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years on, the oil is still not gone from Prince William Sound, and we have not seen the herring fisheries recover, we haven’t seen the killer whales recover. So it’s an extremely persistent pollutant in the environment. It’s difficult to clean, and it’s highly toxic.

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker. (NOAA)

CURWOOD: So, tell me about the trend in oil spills in the US and internationally.

STOCKMAN: We’re seeing an oil and gas boom going on in the US and in Canada, in North America generally, and together with that rise in oil production - which is happening at breakneck speed at the moment across the country - we are seeing a rise in spills. Last year in 2013, we saw about 120,000 barrels of oil spilled in the US from pipelines.

CURWOOD: Barrels. And each barrel is, what, 42 gallons of oil.

STOCKMAN: 42 US gallons, that’s right.

CURWOOD: So we’re talking about millions of barrels of oil.

STOCKMAN: Absolutely. But it’s not just pipelines. We’re seeing oil being transported on trains. There’s been a tenfold increase in the number of spills from trains carrying crude oil since 2008. We’ve seen a number of spills on the Mississippi River where oil is being increasingly barged from rail terminals further north to Gulf Coast refineries. We see it coming from trucks, and we’re seeing it out on drilling platforms, so they’re happening just about everywhere where oil is either being drilled or transported right now.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk a bit about the pipeline infrastructure here in the United States. How old is this system? For example, what was the condition of the Ohio pipeline that spilled recently?

STOCKMAN: Well, the Ohio pipeline is called the Mid-Valley pipeline. It’s 52-years-old. So you know, a lot of the crude oil pipelines around the country were built in the 50s and 60s when US oil production was last booming. They’re aging infrastructure to begin with, but they also weren’t designed to carry the kind of oil that they’re carrying today. In particular, we’re seeing more of the Canadian heavy oil, the oil that comes from the tar sands in Alberta. It’s basically thicker, it’s more like a kind of tar than a liquid crude oil, and it’s not clear that these pipelines can handle the increases in pressure that increasing the capacity involves.

CURWOOD: Pushing the aging pipeline system isn’t enough obviously because, as you point out, we’re transporting more oil than ever by rail. Tell more about that.

STOCKMAN: Well, we’re seeing oil production coming up in places where we’ve never seen it before at these kinds of quantities, particularly in North Dakota. North Dakota’s really the center of the current oil boom, and also at the center of this trend of transporting oil by rail. Building pipelines is a costly business. It takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of permitting involved, and the oil producers, they don’t want to wait around for this infrastructure to be put in place. They want to get the stuff out of the ground as quickly as possible. So around the end of 2009, they began to look to trains to get the oil out of North Dakota, and that has spread around the country to other places where the oil boom is happening, whether it’s Ohio or Wyoming, Colorado or West Texas, they can basically, through the rail network, send their oil to anywhere in the country where there’s demand for it.

CURWOOD: Now as I understand it, before this huge explosion in the Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, that there weren’t any rules in Canada for transporting oil on trains.

STOCKMAN: There weren’t any specific rules in either Canada or the United States, and that train came from North Dakota, and traveled through the United States, traveled through Chicago, and there weren’t the sort of regulations in place that were needed to make sure that train was safe. And that’s really characteristic of the oil boom, that the regulators are often several steps behind what’s going on in the industry, and we don’t see a discussion of safety and regulations that we need until after some kind of disaster has happened.

CURWOOD: I just want to be clear that what you’re telling me is the train that crashed and burned very vigorously in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, passed through the city of Chicago? That could have happened there?

STOCKMAN: Yes, and there are trains carrying the same crude oil that are passing through Chicago every day. There are well over 100 trains carrying crude oil through America’s communities and Canada’s communities at any given time.

CURWOOD: So oil spills are obviously a problem here in the US. How’s the rest of the world doing?

STOCKMAN: We have seen an uptick in the number of big spills, particularly on offshore oilrigs because we’re basically going further and deeper for our oil production as we use up this sort of low-hanging fruit. So we’re seeing particularly off-shore, off West Africa and Brazil, we’re seeing companies drill ever deeper, and with that comes higher risks, more complicated logistics, higher pressures underwater.

The other place where we see a tremendous amount of spillage is in Russia where it’s estimated there’s some 30 million barrels of oil spilled every year. So that’s about seven times the amount that escaped from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico mainly onshore from pipelines crisscrossing Russia. Most of these are spilling into the rivers that lead to the Arctic Ocean in Russia. So we’re seeing a tremendous amount of oil spilled into the Arctic environment from onshore oil production in Russia.

CURWOOD: What do you think should be done to reduce oil spills here in the US and around the world?

STOCKMAN: I think we need to enforce regulations and penalize the companies much harder, and unfortunately we’re just not doing that, not in America nor elsewhere.

CURWOOD: Lorne Stockman is the Research Director at Oil Change International. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today, Lorne.

STOCKMAN: You’re welcome, thank you.



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