Leaky Oil Pipelines Need Closer Attention

THE world recently learned that a pipeline in northern Russia has leaked up to 92 million gallons of crude oil since August, seriously contaminating the fragile Arctic landscape and its rivers (in comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 11 million gallons). In mid-October, floods in east Texas ruptured major pipelines that run from the Gulf Coast to the northeast, releasing several hundred thousand gallons of gasoline and crude oil into the environment. The spill created a slick over 20 miles long and forced 50 people to be treated for burns and smoke inhalation when the San Jacinto River caught fire.

These incidents are dramatic examples of what can happen when aging oil pipelines do not receive the necessary investments to upgrade and maintain them, either by the oil companies who own and rely on them or, in the case of Russia, by the foreign aid money that is intended to support energy development. While some progress is being made in building double-hulled oil tankers, pipelines are a weak link in the world's oil-distribution chain.

In the United States, our 225,000 miles of oil pipelines pose serious environmental hazards, with more than one reported spill per day to coastal and inland waters and an average release size of more than 5,000 gallons. These numbers do not include ongoing leaks from US pipelines that seep underground and contaminate groundwater or spills smaller than the threshold required for reporting releases to federal authorities.

As the Russian spill has amply demonstrated, pipeline integrity should be a prerequisite to oil extraction in environmentally sensitive regions such as the Arctic. Even though problems with the antiquated Russian pipeline system were widely known, a flow through this particular Russian pipeline continued long after the leak was discovered in August.

US and other oil companies extracting and benefiting from oil in the Russian Arctic, and the institutions delivering aid to Russia to promote oil extraction, such as the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Energy, need to ensure that existing and new pipelines protect the environment.

Additionally, there are several international initiatives to prevent this type of environmental catastrophe. The new US Arctic Policy identifies US-Russia Arctic environmental protection and cooperation among its priorities. The US-Russia Environmental Cooperation Agreement and the ``Gore-Chernomyrdin commission'' focus on environmental cooperation and technical assistance programs. The multilateral Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy establishes prevention and response mechanisms.

Despite protestations from the oil industry and the Russian government to the contrary, oil releases are never entirely ``cleaned up.'' Lighter petroleum components such as those in gasoline will evaporate, while heavier compounds such as those in crude oil will sink. Even experiments using the best equipment recover only 10 to 20 percent of spilled oil on water. Likewise, almost no ``cleanups'' of contaminated groundwater achieve drinking-water standards.

Unfortunately, oil is so cheap that the cost of oil lost in spills is almost always less than the cost of upgrading infrastructures. The US employs four tools to ensure that the oil industry prevents leaks from oil tankers and underground tanks: mandatory notification of releases to a centralized response center; design and operating standards to prevent releases; response requirements to stop ongoing releases and ensure that companies recover whatever oil they can; and corporate liability for damages caused by releases.

Providers of aid to Russia, officials implementing international arrangements covering the Arctic, and the fledgling Russian state need to put these tools in place promptly - or shut down oil flow through their leaking pipelines. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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