Funny how quiet pipeline supporters have become this week. You know, the ones who jump up and down, waving their arms every time an oil train derails or springs a leak. “Pipelines are safer than trains!” They yell it over and over, pushing for a “safe” alternative, crying crocodile tears for the people affected by the spill. Our friends at Media Matters, who keep track of such things, note that every train mishap gets Fox News in an uproar to push Keystone XL.

But where are they now, Fox News and their pipeline-pushing cohort? Why have they suddenly gone radio silent? Is it because an oil pipeline ruptured on the California coast, spilling as much as 105,000 gallons of crude onto a popular beach in an area whose economy relies on bringing in more than one billion tourist dollars annually?

The pipeline ruptured Tuesday near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, just north of the city of Santa Barbara. Visitors to the beach had to be evacuated, while residents of the city wait while the ocean current drives the massive nine-miles long slick in their direction, harming wildlife and seabirds as it goes. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has declared a state of emergency for the area.

“All pipes leak. That’s why we have plumbers.” That’s what the Sierra Club’s Kate Colarulli told us in “Keystone PipeLIES Exposed.

She’s right; they do. We’ve seen it many times.

  • In the Yellowstone River, in January of this year, a pipeline broke and spilled 40,000 gallons of crude into the ecologically important waterway, leaving downstream residents with contaminated drinking water. It was the second significant spill in the river in just over three years, after another pipeline leaked 63,000 gallons of oil into it in 2011. ExxonMobil paid a $1 million fine for that one.
  • In May 2014, a broken pipeline spewed 10,000 gallons into Los Angeles streets near Glendale. Firefighters said the 20-inch pipe burst, shooting a geyser of oil high into the air, contaminating a half-mile area, with some parts of it under 3o-inch pools of oil.
  • On March 29, 2013, another ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas, sending a river of oil through a residential community, and contaminating a nearby lake. More than 20 homes were evacuated, and many homes in the area remain vacant two years later. Many residents who stayed report lingering health effects, including respiratory troubles and recurring headaches.
  • The Kalamazoo River pipeline spill remains one of the worst land-based oil disasters in U.S. history. Since an Enbridge pipeline (the same folks who want to expand a pipeline through Wisconsin, much bigger than Keystone XL) dumped more than 1.1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the river in 2010, nearly five years have passed, and the clean-up is still underway. More than $1.2 billion dollars have gone into the effort, and no end is in sight.

That’s five major spills in five years. Urban, suburban, rural, and wildland. All of them with devastating effects on their communities. All of them involving the pipelines that Keystone XL supporters say are so much safer than trains. And these are just some of the highlights; there are many more pipeline spills to speak of, about 300 per year.

Which is not to say that train derailments and spills aren’t dangerous; they are. But the KXL fan club is living in a fantasy world if they think pipelines are a fail-safe alternative.

TransCanada has certainly encouraged them to think so, boasting of the technology and oversight that goes into ensuring their pipelines’ safety.

But what they don’t say is that federal regulators have piled on a list of rules and requirements TransCanada has to meet in order to build its pipelines, noting that bad welds, bent pipes, and damaged corrosion-resistant coatings have marred the construction so far. The southern leg of the KXL route opened in January 2014, but is already under investigation by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, according to Julie Dermansky at Desmog Blog, for noncompliance with regulations. And KXL’s state-of-the-art leak detection system TransCanada brags about is incapable of sensing leaks as large as 500,000 gallons per day.

Mind you, this is the company that wants to build a pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of fresh drinking water for 2 million Americans, and irrigation for a huge segment of the nation’s grain farmers and cattle ranchers. A leak into that water table could have devastating effect on the nation’s food supply for decades.


The Refugio spill comes just before Memorial Day weekend, the opening event for the tourist season. Santa Barbara officials and business owners are worried about how their community will cope with the loss of tourism dollars, especially considering that the clean-up effort is expected to last months, if not longer. “We’re always at capacity this time of year anyway. Memorial Day weekend is the kick off for summer: hotels, restaurants, campgrounds—everything’s sold out,” the state park superintendent who ordered Refugio and nearby El Capitan Beach closed told the Pacific Standard.

The spill, tragic and upsetting as it is, is luckily mostly local in its impact. Businesses that rely on tourism will suffer this year, and maybe the next. Many will struggle under economic circumstances far outside of their control, forced upon them by a troubled pipeline company concerned with profits, not their families.

But at least the rest of the country doesn’t have to worry how they’re going to feed themselves because of the spill.