The Yellowstone River, dubbed "America's last best river" by National Geographic, is, or was, a pristine 700-mile waterway through Montana and Wyoming that's considered among the best trout streams in the country. So it's little wonder that Montanans and environmentalists were horrified on July 1 when up to 1,000 barrels of oil spilled into the river downstream from Yellowstone National Park, fouling miles of riverbank. The culprit was an Exxon Mobil pipeline buried under the river that was apparently compromised by erosion from this year's unusually heavy water flow.
The spill is a reminder that offshore oil platforms, the source of last year's massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, aren't the only cause of leaks and environmental damage. Pipelines, especially aging ones, spring leaks with some frequency, though rarely in such environmentally sensitive places as the Yellowstone. While regulators take Exxon Mobil to task over its handling of the incident, environmental groups and some members of Congress are citing the leak as justification for halting or slowing approval of a major pipeline project that would carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, passing, like the Exxon Mobil pipeline, under the Yellowstone River and other waterways.
Because the TransCanada Corp. pipeline, called Keystone XL, would cross the U.S. border, it must be approved by the State Department. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who says she'd rather get dirty oil from Canada than dirty oil from the Persian Gulf, is inclined to back the project. Less enthusiastic are environmental regulators. The Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly found fault with the State Department's review of the risks posed by the pipeline, pointing out in June that it hasn't adequately studied the impact of potential spills on groundwater, of emissions at the gulf facilities where the pipeline's crude would be refined and other issues.
TransCanada has a poor record when it comes to spills. Its first pipeline, Keystone I, has already sprung more than a dozen leaks in its first year of operation. The State Department is promising to make a decision on Keystone XL before the end of the year, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee is pushing for approval by Nov. 1, but there is no rush. The environmental risks should be thoroughly studied and mitigation measures must be put in place.
The objections to Keystone XL stem at least in part from widespread concern over the production of oil from tar sands, which ravages the landscape, pollutes rivers and emits high concentrations of greenhouse gases. But stopping the pipeline wouldn't end the practice. China is becoming increasingly interested in Canadian oil and would probably make up for any decrease in sales to the U.S. The best way to solve the tar sands problem is for the world to agree on a practical scheme for putting a price on carbon emissions.