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Marketplace

The politics behind oil pipelines

Lizzie O'Leary Sep 4, 2015
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Most of the time at Marketplace when we talk about oil, we focus on its economic costs, but there are, of course, many environmental costs. Not just in terms of climate change, but what happens when something goes terribly wrong.

That TV reporter? Yeah, it’s me. Five years ago on the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, during the BP spill, the Coast Guard flew me up and over the site of the spill. It was pretty staggering; the ribbons of oil were orange in some places, rainbow in others, and it stretched for miles and miles. That spill lasted 87 days and more than 3 million barrels of oil were lost.

The Deepwater Horizon spill eclipsed the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, which had been the biggest U.S. spill before that. Former Alaskan fisherman Joe Banta remembers that moment in 1989.

“When the spill happened, I was waking up listening to NPR,” Banta says. “Over the radio, I heard that they run the tanker aground. And I swore and said, ‘The captain must have been drunk.’ I worked for a small fisherman’s association back then, and I went into work and started gathering information. And pretty quickly realized the magnitude of what was going on by calling my friends in Cordova, Alaska, where I grew up.”

Banta says the fishing stock has rebounded since then, but it took years to recover from the 257,000 barrel spill. There are the less publicized stories, too, like those from the Enbridge spill in Michigan, where a pipeline leak spilled onto Frank Zinn’s family farm in 2010.

“All 850,000 gallons of crude oil that spilled actually flowed through our property. I think that we all need to recognize that we need the safety infrastructure in place to make sure these spills won’t happen.”

There are more than 190,000 miles of pipelines transporting oil and gas, according to the American Petroleum InstituteAnd since the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, they are increasingly controversial.

“There seems to be more and more groups involved in this. It really used to be just a local NIMBY issue,” says Matt Daily, energy and transportation editor at Politico Pro. “If a big company came along and wanted to dig up your property, that sort of got the attention of the local landowners. But now, what you’re seeing is environmental groups, climate change activists, all these people are looking at the infrastructure build-out and are saying, ‘We can help push back on this.'”

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