Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Willard Bay Oil Spill and Interstate Pipeline Safety Regulations

This is an essay I wrote on as part of applying for a scholarship that came through.  500$ free for pretty much just reading the newspaper.  Thing is the essay itself didn't seem like that much of something special to me.  But I guess the people who award scholarships liked it.  I just thought I'd celebrate the scholarship by blogging the essay.

Within the past three years there have been three oil spills in Utah.  The most recent oil spill happened near Willard Bay in March 2013.  This spill received attention in part because of the dramatic story of a beaver dam stopping an oil spill from seriously contaminating a wildlife preserve.  But it also received attention because, unlike some of the earlier oil spills which happened as a result of difficult to prevent accidents such as a downed power falling on top of an oil pipeline, the Willard Bay spill happened as a result of lax safety oversight.  Federal law puts the regulation of interstate pipelines under the jurisdiction of the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.  This administration has a limited ability to perform safety inspections because it only has 120 inspectors covering 2.6 million miles of pipeline across the entire nation, about 6,000 of them in Utah.  Most states do not suffer greatly from this lack of inspectors because the law allows the administration to delegate much of its responsibilities to state governments.  As a result most states use their own inspectors and funding from a federal matching program to inspect interstate pipelines.  Utah had not done this, leaving all inspection work to the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration instead.  Because of limited resources the pipeline was not properly monitored or repaired and a lengthwise seam on the 60 year old pipe ruptured.  Chevron spent $21.5 million in cleanup efforts before agreeing to a court settlement to pay the Utah government another $5.35 million in various fees and payments.  Governor Herbert has promised that the state will take a more active role in ensuring the safety of these pipelines by working through the Departments of Commerce and Environmental Quality, but did not propose any new legislation.  Representative Brian King in the Utah state legislature proposed looking into legislation to toughen penalties on oil spills.  In response to previous oil spills Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker proposed advocating for more tough compliance measures, but did not advocate for change during the following legislative session and complained that the Department of Environmental Quality told him that enforcement measures weren't possible.  To date, the only clear response that has happened to improve interstate pipeline safety in Utah is that Chevron paid a large settlement and spent a large sum of money before that on cleanup efforts that may encourage them to be more careful with other pipelines they operate.  As time passes and the matter is considered by the government, it will become more likely that the Utah government may take more authority over regulating these interstate pipelines, especially if significant oil spills continue to happen at a rate of about once a year as they have been over the last three years.