More than two months after an aging pipeline cracked open, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into a Mayflower neighborhood and a cove of Lake Conway, Exxon Mobil still has not provided federal regulators with even a preliminary cause for the break and has not requested approval to resume transporting oil through that pipeline.
Before Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. can reopen the 850-mile-long Pegasus pipeline, which was built starting in 1947, it must comply with several corrective measures ordered April 2 by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Exxon Mobil has neither updated its April 26 accident report filed with the federal agency nor asked to reopen the pipeline, which spilled an estimated 147,000 gallons of oil March 29, leading to the evacuations of 22 homes, dead and injured wildlife, several lawsuits, and federal and state investigations.
An Exxon Mobil Corp. spokesman Wednesday blamed the delay largely on the lack of a known cause for the rupture. Meanwhile, an energy expert in Texas said the oil giant’s caution could involve political and business considerations.
“In general, our caution is rooted in our corporate safety and environmen-tal policies,” Exxon Mobil spokesman Michael Kontos said in an e-mail Wednesday. “In this specific case, it is mostly based on the fact the cause has not yet been determined. As we have stated many times, we will not restart the pipeline until both we and federal regulators are confident it is safe to do so.”
By comparison, Enbridge Inc. sought permission to reopen its Line B about two weeks after that section of its Lakehead pipeline system ruptured July 26, 2010, spilling more than 840,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
On Aug. 9, 2010, that company asked to reopen a portion of the line that had included the spill site. The government denied that request but approved a more stringent reopening plan on Sept. 22, 2010. In 2012, the National Transportation and Safety Board severely criticized Enbridge’s handling of the rupture.
Kontos said, though, that it is “difficult to compare incidents.” He said, “they each have unique circumstances.”
“A restart typically occurs after enough information about the cause has been determined to inform the development of a restart plan,” Kontos said. “That plan then has to then be approved by [the federal agency]. … Weare waiting for information before we can determine the cause of this incident.
“The integrity of any pipeline is based on its overall condition, which depends on a number of factors, including its use, ongoing maintenance, monitoring, etc., and not simply its age,” Kontos added.
In Dallas, Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said Wednesday that it did seem “highly unusual” for Exxon Mobil to take so long on moving forward.
“It could be that they’re just being extremely cautious,” Weinstein said. “The anti-pipeline people, particularly the people opposed to Keystone XL, are using the Arkansas pipeline spill as an example. So maybe [Exxon Mobil officials] just don’t want to do anything until this Keystone XL issue is resolved. … It could be they just want to maintain a low profile.”
“There is so much controversy about pipelines, maybe they just don’t want to rock the boat,” Weinstein said. “If there’s plenty of crude in the system” perhaps Exxon Mobil first wants to see what happens on the political front with the Keystone XL project. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
TransCanada Corp. wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries at a rate of more than 800,000 barrels a day. The U.S. State Department is considering the proposed project, which would carry bitumen oil similar to that routed through the Pegasus pipeline.
Adding to the attention is a diluted-bitumen oil study that the National Academy of Sciences has conducted and is due to be presented to Congress by July. Environmentalists contend that diluted-bitumen oil is worse for the environment; some others disagree.
Despite efforts to build the Keystone XL, Weinstein said, “There’s a glut of crude flowing to the Gulf from domestic sources and imports. So maybe they don’t need the stuff right now. Part of it may be that inventories are at a near record high. We’re swimming in crude oil. The refineries are operating at near-record capacity on the Gulf Coast.Domestic demand is down, so we are exporting more and more refined product out of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf refineries. … There’s just no market for it.”
Kontos noted that an independent Texas laboratory that has been analyzing the ruptured segment of the Pegasus pipeline has until Friday to send the results of its analysis to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and to Exxon Mobil.
“These results will contribute to the overall investigation into the cause of the incident, and this one input may or may not by itself determine the cause,” Kontos added. “The overall investigation continues, and there is no timeline set for its conclusion.”
One of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s requirements is that Exxon Mobil complete a comprehensive safety inspection of the entire Pegasus pipeline before the line can reopen. Kontos said such an inspection has not been conducted. Rather, he said, “this is likely to be conducted as part of the start up plan.”
Exxon Mobil workers and others are still at the scene of the Mayflower spill but have substantially decreased in numbers as the company moves into the remediation phase of the cleanup there. Compared with a high of more than 700 after the spill, about 125 workers were at the scene as of earlier this week.
Last week, Exxon Mobil and government officials involved in the Mayflower cleanup released several photographs of the once visibly oil-contaminated marshy area before the cleanup and afterward.
After seeing the pictures, Glen Hooks, a senior campaign representative for the environmentalist Sierra Club, said in an e-mail, “While Exxon Mobil has cleaned upmuch of the visible oil from the marsh, the corporation’s pretty pictures don’t tell the complete story.
“Much of the damage from the disaster isn’t visible. We lost untold numbers of wildlife from the marsh due to this spill, and they haven’t returned. … Anyone who thinks this cleanup is near completion based on Exxon Mobil’s selected photographs should think again.”
Geralyn Hoey, south-central representative for the National Wildlife Federation, said, “These photos aren’t before and after - they’re mid-disaster and mid-cleanup. This is the end of theemergency response phase, but true wetland restoration hasn’t started yet.”
Kontos said Exxon Mobil has not completed work in the area.
Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, confirmed Wednesday that Exxon Mobil Environmental Services Co. has begun working with the Department of Environmental Quality and others in the area. The company - formed in 2008 by Exxon Mobil Corp. - is working not as a statepaid contractor but for the responsible party, which is Exxon Mobil, Benefield said.