Oil on the Yellowstone: Our Energy Future?

Two days before the fireworks of Independence Day 2011, Montanans found another, unexpected, flammable substance fouling the banks of the Yellowstone River near Laurel. The record floodwaters breached the Silvertip Pipeline, spewing oil into the surrounding waters.

Exxon initially estimated that 42,000 gallons of crude oil escaped into the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states, but, at that time, they also claimed that the pipeline had been shut off after only six minutes. Later, the Montana Department of Transportation showed that the pipeline was not fully sealed for 49 minutes — over eight times Exxon’s original estimate — but Exxon never updated their estimate for the amount of oil spilled.

A column citing the deceitfulness of a massive multinational corporation that exists solely to enrich its shareholders would add little to the debate that has embroiled Montana. Rather than simply blame the company, we must ask more difficult — but more revealing — questions.

It seems apparent that this year’s devastating floods affected the rupture of the pipeline. The question of what directly caused the break in the pipeline is fairly easy: Officials believe that floodwaters raging at four times their normal level exposed the pipeline, allowing debris to crash into and sever it.

However, the question of the rupture’s root cause is far more sinister and fewer people are asking it. Did the Silvertip Pipeline itself cause the oil spill? Or, put more generally, did the 2.5 million miles of pipelines that crisscross the United States, transporting oil, natural gas and other hazardous materials, cause this oil spill?

Did all of the refineries belching smoke across the nation and across Montana cause this spill? Did production of oil from Canada’s Athabasca tar sands or fracking in the Bakken formation in the nearby Williston Basin cause this spill?

In short, does our insatiable use of non-renewable petroleum products cause the rainstorms and floods that then rupture pipelines carrying the very same petroleum products? In essence, we are witnessing a positive feedback loop: The more petroleum we burn, the more natural disasters and strange weather patterns we must confront. The more natural disasters that occur, the more pipelines are ruptured by out-of-control weather.

And, clearly, natural disasters are occurring more and more frequently. The Yellowstone River hit a 100-year peak this summer. Other rivers and creeks in southeastern Montana inundated towns like Roundup, Joliet, Lodge Grass and many others. In other parts of the country, the Mississippi River has been experiencing what used to be termed “100-year floods,” due to their frequency and severity, every couple years.

While some fundamentalists, like GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, claim that natural disasters are signs from God that we aren’t living as we should, the real answer is the heavy, black, non-renewable sludge coursing through the veins of our country.

The transition to cleaner sources of energy will doubtlessly be painful, but a future in which we do not immediately address this addiction will be infinitely more so. Where will Montana be —leading the vanguard of clean energy with research institutions like MSU, or left in a smog-choked 20th century?