BOZEMAN, Mont.-What happened under the churning waters of the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Mont., on July 1, won't be clear until the river subsides this coming fall, but the working theory is that the flood-stage river scoured down to a buried Exxon oil pipeline, busting open the pipe with a barrage of boulders and logs.
The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, meaning it has no dams along its length and thus scours its bed more. Two toads, a garter snake, and a warbler have received treatment so far from the spill. A few more oiled birds have been sighted needing treatment. No one knows the exact amount of oil that poured into the river before the company shut the pipeline off-initial estimates landed on 1,000 barrels of oil. Last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, by contrast, released millions of barrels.
"It's probably not an environmental disaster," said Jerry Johnson, an ecologist and a professor of political science at Montana State University in Bozeman, about 100 miles from the spill. "It's political windfall."
An idyll for fly-fishers, rafters, and kayakers, the river is a bad setting for Exxon to have a spill, even a small one, from a public-relations standpoint. According to Montana conservationists, it is the first significant oil spill in Montana in recent memory, and spotlights the state's dueling efforts to preserve its pristine wildernesses and extract its natural resources.
Exxon representatives blanketed radio stations in Montana, explaining how many people the company had hired for cleanup, and assuring locals that the company wouldn't lay off anyone at the refinery in Billings, even though the oil wasn't flowing. Exxon said it has sent employees to visit over 150 Montanans affected by the spill to answer questions about the claims process and cleanup. Because the spill happened when the river was flooding, some farmers lost crops as oil spread from the riverbanks and coated plants. But the floodwaters also helped dilute the oil.
Scott Bosse floats down the Yellowstone River every week, and he pulled up pictures on his laptop of his wife on the banks of the postcard-ready river as he sat in his Bozeman office. Back in 1989, when he was 23, he worked for a commercial fishing business that was forced to shut down following the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. He remembers sitting on the Alaska beach surrounded by tall bonfires of oiled wood, seaweed, and dead animals. "That spill changed my life," he said. "I trusted corporations to do more."
Bosse went to work on the cleanup in Alaska. Now based in Bozeman, he works for the conservation group American Rivers as its Northern Rockies director. The Yellowstone River spill is serious, he said, but "not an ecologically devastating spill." His experience with Exxon in 1989 was that the cleanup efforts were for show because oil is so difficult to clean up. "Prevention is the name of the game," he said.
Bosse pointed at a map of Montana covering a wall in his office, noting that oil and gas pipelines cross rivers or lakes in 88 places across the state. Over the next few months the State Department is considering approving a new $13 billion oil pipeline, called Keystone XL, which would run from Alberta, Canada, to Texas-and would cross under the Yellowstone River, Bosse said.
The State Department has to approve the pipeline because it originates outside the United States. TransCanada, which would build the pipeline, filed an application for the pipeline's permit back in 2008 and expects final approve before the end of the year. High-profile environmental groups in Washington are using the Yellowstone spill to argue that the State Department shouldn't approve the pipeline at all.
TransCanada has said it will bury the pipeline deeper than the 20-year-old Exxon line and make pipe walls thicker. But Bosse hopes legislative bodies at the state and national level will impose more safety regulations on pipelines. The cost of digging deeper is a "rounding error," he said, thanks to developments in technology.
Tourism is a bigger sector in Montana's economy than energy, so preserving pristine rivers and forests is economically important. The Yellowstone River originates in Yellowstone National Park, which draws millions of visitors every year, and traverses 670 miles across Montana to North Dakota, where it joins the Missouri River. "[Tourists] are thinking to themselves, 'OK, not going fishing in Montana this summer,'" Bosse said. "I think Montanans want to strike a balance between energy development and conserving our most special places." State residents also want energy development to happen "on our terms," he said.
Johnson, the Montana State University professor, recalled that industries have worked with the environmental community in the past. When a timber company logged Mount Ellis, an 8,000-foot peak near Bozeman, the company consulted with community and environmental groups and logged in a way that protected the "viewshed," or its scenic beauty, he said.
The broken Exxon pipeline appears to have complied with current regulations, which require pipelines to be buried five feet under a river. Exxon has said it will be burying the replacement pipe 30 feet under the river. John Baden, founder of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, also based in Bozeman, served on President Reagan's National Petroleum Council. He thinks environmental groups are using the spill as an excuse to push new, unnecessary regulations.
The spill was not a consequence of neglect or malfeasance on Exxon's part, Baden said, but one example of the "distribution of risk across a vast system." Oil companies have "tons of pipelines" crisscrossing the country, he said, and environmentalists in Montana are making political hay off a system they rely on "to fill up their Subarus."
But in mid-July even the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Republican Fred Upton, said he will introduce legislation to update pipeline regulations, requiring deeper pipelines under rivers and better shut-off valves-mirroring Democratic legislation currently in the Senate. Upton represents Kalamazoo, Mich., where another pipeline broke last year and poured 20,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River, one of the worst spills in the Midwest in recent history. Oil spills from pipeline breaks are rare, but the succession of two high-profile breaks in the last year has pushed Congress to take action. "A disaster always motivates Congress," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which will be pushing the legislation alongside the Energy and Commerce Committee.