California cleanin’: Plains Pipelines adds the worst Sheen yet to the West Coast

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On May 19, several hundred barrels of oil leaked out of a Plains All American Pipeline pipeline (no easy way around that grammatical pig) and found its way down into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, California. The situation remains totally not funny despite the droll PR campaign that was professionally and promptly put into action (once, as Plains puts it, the company “became aware of a release…”). The company president, fully up to speed on the Save Your Ass 2015 Public Relations guide, promptly issued a full and frank apology. Maybe he meant it, I should give him the benefit of the doubt.

The spill raises two seemingly contradictory observations. On one hand, pipelines are currently being held to a bizarrely high standard of operation. There are about 190,000 miles of oil pipelines in the US, with a fair bit in Canada as well (the climate-crushing Keystone XL pipeline has to connect to something). Many of these miles run through populated areas, pretty scenery, or habitats that are most likely home to some creature that is at least marginally above mosquitoes on the human fondness index (dogs being at the top apparently, despite their glaring sanitary deficiencies). Any spill whatsoever is treated like a national emergency. Enbridge spilled 28,000 barrels into a creek in Michigan, definitely not a small amount and not without impact to the creek, but to date have spent something like $1 billion cleaning it up, an amount that could have built a glass dome over the entire thing and lined it with palm trees. And Enbridge is still paying a heavy price for the spill in terms of getting new pipelines built, as is the whole industry. Relative to most natural or even man-made disasters, pipeline spills are relatively benign. Disgusting, but no one dies, and if you’ve ever smelled the stuff you’d know birds don’t readily fly into a pool of it.

A further weirdness is that while pipeline companies are under intense scrutiny over spills, and rightly so, the real danger often lies elsewhere, with oil producers that own their own pipelines. Most oil pipelines, albeit smaller diameter ones, are operated by oil producing companies, who frankly don’t get too worked up over spills because a tarnished reputation doesn’t’ seriously harm their business. Enbridge has trouble developing new pipelines because of one isolated incident, which is now impacting billions of dollars of growth plans; Exxon had a similarly large pipeline spill in 2013 that turned the streets of Mayflower, Arkansas into black babbling brooks, and their business carries on like nothing had happened. While mildly embarrassed, Exxon executives are probably far more concerned about changes to the menu in the executive dining room. So the whole notion of supervision and punishment for these sloppy operating practices needs to be revisited. Or visited, I’m not sure that it ever was visited.

On the other hand, Plains has had two major spills in Canada in the past few years and regulators have thrown the book at them (sadly it’s not much of a book, more like an Archie comic – Plains swore up and down that they’d learned their lesson after the first spill, then after the second spill regulators found that a lot of the precautions Plains had sworn to implement had not happened. So the book toss was a direct hit but had no apparent affect whatsoever). Other pipeline operators seem to be able to monitor their babies quite effectively, whereas Plains just seems irritated by all that paperwork.

For environmentalists and the common man/woman/other (no Caitlyn jokes), keeping oil inside pipelines is not an unreasonable request. For pipeline companies that message might as well be in Urdu (or even Ebonics – they understand neither) money is the only language that registers (beyond the joyless incantations prescribed by PR firms when something goes wrong – “Safety is our top priority.” – find me a pipeline exec who doesn’t have that cliché burned in his brain (and yes, his is the right gender, inevitably)). Spills should be subject to fines that grow to astronomical amounts in direct proportion to the amount of oil spilled, and spills into waterways should be some multiple of that. Insurance, if available, should be made far more expensive or punitive in the event of a spill. With these measures in place, there is good reason to believe Plains would not be “becoming aware of” any more spills on their systems any time soon.

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