Arkansas Isn’t Michigan

How oil sands opponents are skipping the facts on pipeline safety to win political points in the Keystone XL debate

Shortly after Friday’s incident on the Pegasus line in Mayflower, Arkansas, pipeline opponents held on to a loose assumption: If Pegasus is an oil pipeline and it spilled, then all oil pipelines must spill. Better yet, the incident involved the transportation of crude oil from Canada’s oil sands region, a convenient commonality between Pegasus and several pipelines that have fallen under recent controversy, including Line 6B in Michigan and the Keystone XL.

ExxonMobil, like all pipeline operators, is required by federal law to submit a spill response plan prior to beginning operations or when changes are made. That plan is in full force today, as the company continues to investigate the site of the Mayflower incident. But rather than inquire about the cause of the spill, activists have jumped at the chance to exploit the event as a reason why President Obama should not approve the Keystone XL project. Readers of our previous posts will acknowledge this as just another delay tactic, but what’s more concerning is the propensity for these groups to draw comparisons and make policy recommendations not based in fact. Here are a few examples of where they’ve gone wrong:

  • The Marshall, Michigan incident had nothing to do with the type of oil running through it. NRDC, Sierra Club and others claim that the Pegasus leak is the second coming of Line 6B simply because both lines carry crude from Canada’s oil sands region. But following an intensive investigation of the Michigan incident, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the pipeline was subject to external, not internal, corrosion. In other words, the pipeline didn’t fail because of what flowed through it.
  • The Portland-Montreal Pipe Line doesn’t currently transport oil sands crude. In an April 1 press release, Environment Maine declared that what happened in Arkansas is “a glimpse into the very real consequences we could face in Maine if the Portland-Montreal pipeline is allowed to carry the same dirty tar sands oil through our state.” That’s a big “if,” considering there are no current plans to transport oil sands crude through New England. Sure, representatives from PMPL have not written off the possibility of reversing the line in the future to transport more oil sands crude, but thus far, New England activists are opposing something that hasn’t even happened. The statement is doubly wrong when you consider that accident reports from the Pipeline & Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) from 2002 through mid-2012 show zero internal corrosion-related releases from pipelines carrying any Canadian crude.
  • Keystone XL will be state of the art. For reasons outlined above, oil sands crudes do not pose a unique threat to pipeline safety – a fact that throws many claims from anti-Keystone activists out the door. But after four years of review, the State Department continues to come to the same conclusion: Keystone XL will have “a minimal environmental impact.” Pipeline technology continues to improve, making older pipelines more secure and new pipelines better than ever — and Keystone XL will take full advantage of it.

As TransCanada’s Shawn Howard told Politico, “It is easy for these groups to ignore the fact that every year, [m]illions of barrels of oil move safely throughout North America.” And if President Obama will give Keystone XL the chance, the thousands of highly-trained workers who will see to the pipeline’s construction will continue that safety legacy.


  1. Lynne says:

    As an RN with 35 years of health care experience, I have deep concerns about the health and safety of the American people related to statements in this article:
    1) You are using incorrect logic with your statement that if the Pegasus line spilled, then ALL pipelines must spill.” What current commentators are actually saying is that, since the Pegasus line DID spill, then ANY other pipeline COULD spill. There’s a big difference between the two statements. Your statement exaggerates the assessment of the pipeline malfunction with an all-or-nothing pipeline adequacy proposition. The second statement asserts that the Pegasus pipeline DID LEAK, therefore other pipelines MIGHT ALSO LEAK. That means that your current safety procedures ARE NOT WORKING. This failure of safety protocols warrants more caution–not less– in any future pipeline construction and operation.
    2) You tell us that KXL will be “state of the art.” Yet I am aware of the discovery of small holes in the welds of pipe being placed at the southern leg of the KXL. ( According to the report, upon discovery, that section of pipe was immediately buried into the ground and was not tested again. And then there is the case of TransCanada’s employee Evan Vokes who reported unsafe welding practices in that company and was fired for being a whistle blower. I have to say that these cases don’t exactly inspire confidence in the quality of your work.
    3) I’m sure that it’s true that “millions of barrels of oil move safely throughout North America.” That should be the baseline expectation for your company, with an expectation of having NO SPILLS. As a point of discussion, I understand that there is a difference between transporting general crude oil and transporting tar sand diluted bitumen, or dilbit. The thick, sticky tar sand bitumen must be diluted with solvents so the petrochemical will be able to flow through pipelines. The diluents are proprietary but often are toxic. If there is a dilbit spill, it will be much more difficult to clean up. I am not happy with what I’ve seen of the cleanup for the Mayflower Arkansas dilbit spill.

    So you see, I’m not some rabid environmentalist. I’m simply a nurse, a mother, and an American citizen who believes in staying informed and protecting my friends and family. I’d like to see you take better care of Americans than you have historically. You have the ability. All that you lack is the will to do so. Why don’t you (pleasantly) surprise me?

    • Randall says:

      Every opportunity has risk! Affordable energy is a vital piece to improve our economy and bring millions back into the workforce and out of dispare and poverty.

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