PRUDEN: A useful pipeline spill in Arkansas

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, and a pipeline leaking on somebody else’s front yard can be a godsend, too. The environmentalists who were waging a losing war against the proposed Keystone pipeline woke up to the news of a small pipeline leak in Arkansas and thought it was Christmas morning.

If environmentalists were the praying kind, they would say the Arkansas leak was an answer to their prayers. They think it ends the debate over the Keystone pipeline. One green lobbyist says “this should be the nail in the coffin of the Keystone pipeline.” They’re eager to pressure President Obama to veto Keystone.

The Arkansas pipeline, called the Pegasus, was laid down and buried 2 feet under in 1947, and runs from Patoka, Ill., where it connects to pipelines from western Canada to refineries in Nederland, Texas. It sprang the leak March 29 at tiny Mayflower, Ark., a bedroom suburb of Little Rock, and spilled up to 5,000 barrels of tar-sands crude through ditches and across lawns of tidy middle-class brick houses, and was stopped just short of the shore of Lake Conway, popular with fishermen. It’s a catastrophe that didn’t happen.

ExxonMobil, operators of the pipeline, moved quickly when a drop in pressure signaled a leak. Valves 18 miles apart were closed within 16 minutes, shutting off movement of the sluggish crude. About 20 families were required to leave their homes and were put up at nearby hotels by ExxonMobil. The company dispatched 120 workmen and 15 vacuum trucks with 33 storage tanks to collect the 12,000 barrels of the oil and water mixture from streets, ditches and lawns. This week they’re steam-cleaning the streets.

To the Luddite environmentalists, life is just one endless tragedy, brought to you by fat Republicans, self-righteous Christians and greedy capitalists who keep inventing evil contraptions like electric lights, indoor plumbing, automobiles, computers and 10-speed blenders. Even bicycles are suspect. They all soak up energy. The Arkansas spill, unless you’re someone on a quiet Mayflower street with oil in the petunia patch, is not insignificant, but not a tragedy.

Mayflower, says one breathless commentator at the Atlantic Wire, is “a scene straight out of the beginning of a post-apocalyptic movie — thick, black oil running down a suburban street even more dangerous than it looks.”

Most of the people who live in Mayflower are working-class folk who aren’t happy to see their lawns turned black by oil and are eager to get back into their houses. But they typically understand that “life happens.” Allen Dodson, the county judge (corresponding to county supervisor or manager in other places) says his constituents are mostly concerned about getting home. The oil fumes have “died down,” he says, “and to the untrained nose, it has greatly improved. It smells better than if you were just paving a road.” (Of course, unpaved streets don’t smell at all if you can keep dogs, horses and pigs away from the dirt.)

Most Mayflower residents, like most Americans elsewhere, are unaware of the thousands of miles of pipeline that run under houses, shopping centers and even schools and hospitals, buried several feet below ground. No one was killed or even hurt at Mayflower, and moving oil in a pipeline is far safer than moving it by train or truck. The difference between a pipeline spill and a train-wreck spill, as The Wall Street Journal observes, is “a lesson in political opportunism.”

Such opportunism is what really smells. The Sierra Club, which never met an endangered slug or snake it wouldn’t embrace, says the Mayflower spill proves that “it’s not a matter of ‘if’ spills will occur on dangerous pipelines like Keystone XL, but rather ‘when.’”

Some oil spills are more fashionable in the compliant media than others. Last week, a Canadian Pacific Railway oil train derailed in Minnesota, spilling 15,000 barrels of crude. This was more than three times the oil spilled at Mayflower, but it went largely unremarked. The implications on safety are profound. As pipelines reach carrying capacity, the volume of oil carried on rail increases — up from 9,000 carloads five years ago to 233,000 carloads last year.

The environmentalists should embrace Keystone if they’re really interested in public safety and pristine countryside. Keystone, with abundant new fail-safe technology, will replace pipelines like the Pegasus line through Arkansas. When the 36-inch Pegasus was built right after World War II, few safety requirements were in place, and pipelines, like other parts of the infrastructure, were thrown across the landscape in a hurry, the better to sate pent-up demand for oil and all the things oil makes possible. The mantra was familiar: “Build it and they won’t have to come, because they’re already here.”

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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