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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill Dissipating; Pipeline Spews in Michigan

Let's start with the good news: BP's giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is disappearing faster than anyone expected. As in War of the Worlds, we can thank the tiniest members of the ecosystem, bacteria, for getting rid of a big part of the problem. In an interesting evolutionary note, the Gulf of Mexico has lots of natural oil seepage, so natural selection has favored microbes that can eat the stuff. Also helping: evaporation (oil evaporates? who'd've thought?) and the biggest oil spill response ever, 4000+ ships, thanks to BP and Uncle Sam.

Of course, this is just the view from the surface. Fishermen worry that much of the oil is down below, settling to the sea floor where they get shrimp and oysters. One researcher can still find oil in the coral at the site of a 1979 oil spill off the Yucatan Peninsula. Fisheries recovered from that spill after two years, although oyster beds appear to have been permanently degraded.

Now the bad news, especially for those of your being forced to become neighbors with TransCanada's Keystone tar sands pipeline: an Enbridge Energy pipeline sprang a leak Sunday near Marshall, Michigan, and spewed 840,000 gallons (about 20,000 barrels) of oil into a creek that runs into the Kalamazoo River. Local officials worry that the size of this spill makes contamination of the local water supply inevitable.

Enbridge, TransCanada's Calgary-based competitor, at least won't have any trouble paying for the cleanup: they just reported record earnings for the second quarter of 2010.

When it's working, that Enbridge pipeline carries about 190,000 barrels of oil per day from Indiana to Ontario. 20,000 barrels represents about two and a half hours worth of pipeline capacity... meaning the leak ran for at least two and a half hours before someone noticed and put a cork in it. The first word authorities got of the leak came not from Enbridge but from a citizen calling 911 around 9 p.m. Sunday after noticing the stink of oil in his neighborhood.

A note to neighbors on TransCanada's Keystone pipeline route: that new pipe pumps 435,000 barrels a day across our prairie wetlands and water supplies. TransCanada's proposed but increasingly embattled Keystone XL expansion would haul another 900,000 barrels a day across West River and other nice places. If either of those pipes blows a gasket, imagine how long it will take for a farmer or rancher or other passerby to notice the oil and fumes out in the middle of a slough, and then for TransCanada to dispatch a response team from Fargo or Yankton.

But don't worry: in the State Department's draft environmental impact statement, TransCanada's people calculate that Keystone XL will only have one spill incident every 7400 years (see page 14). Of course that's per mile of pipeline. Feel free to divide by 1700 miles of pipeline and roll the dice on your aquifer.

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