Recently, our country has endured too many oil spills. We cannot afford another.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch
3,800 miles from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, presents opportunity:
thousands of jobs, hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day and more
energy independence from unfriendly sources. It also would give us the
opportunity to prevent, not react to, another oil spill.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “The purpose is
clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.” As the
former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I embrace President
While serving as chairman, I quickly learned that if public
safety does not trump economics from the beginning of an operation, both the
public and the stockholders will shoulder the costs down the line. This is why I
propose that all parties involved with the Keystone XL — both regulators and oil
companies — work together and take the responsible safety measures.
The Keystone XL, which will be built by TransCanada, could
cross part of the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, our nation’s largest underground
source of water. It provides drinking water to millions of people and livestock,
while also irrigating countless acres of crops.
Imagine the destruction an oil spill would cause to the
heartland of America. We only need to look at the recent track record of oil
companies to understand how important it is that TransCanada demonstrates it
will adhere to a strong corporate culture of safety, that this pipeline will be
built to the highest industry standards and that it will be duly maintained and
inspected so that it can be operated safely for dec- ades to come.
Often overshadowed by the BP disaster, the 2010 Enbridge
oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan was also a major lapse in safety
protocol. The Enbridge disaster spilled 1 million gallons of oil into the river,
which has resulted in a two-year cleanup that is expected to cost almost $800
Five years prior, Enbridge discovered damage to the section
of pipeline that eventually caused the disaster. But it did nothing. The day of
the spill, it was 17 hours before Enbridge employees realized the pipeline was
broken. They apparently ignored repeated control center alarms that indicated a
loss of pressure and that a leak may have occurred.
It seems Enbridge chose to continue pumping oil in the line
rather than shutting the line down until the company could confirm the nature of
Two years later, Enbridge had another spill, this time
leaking more than 1,000 barrels of oil in Wisconsin. While the devastation of
this latest tragedy has yet to be fully assessed, one thing is clear: These are
examples of a breakdown in safety performance and the lack of a “safety first”
attitude. And they are unacceptable.
Pipeline companies and regulators should emulate the
aviation industry. Its regulatory framework and culture of safety have led the
American aviation industry to be one of the safest in the world. The FAA does a
tremendous job inspecting and assessing aviation technology and procedures.
Unfortunately, the pipeline industry relies too much on self-assessment with
regulators exercising little independent oversight. This would be unacceptable
in the aviation industry.
Still, oil pipelines are a vital and necessary part of our
country’s future. When properly built, maintained and inspected, they can
operate with minimal risk almost indefinitely.
The problem is, when they are not maintained and properly
inspected — and when corporate attitudes shirk safety in favor of a financial
bottom line — they put an unknowing public at risk. TransCanada must show the
public its safety plan and that it is working with regulators to prevent a
catastrophic oil spill.
The harsh reality is that our economy lacks jobs and our
lifestyles depend on oil. But it’s important that we provide these jobs and
transport oil in a safe, responsible manner. Before a project of this magnitude
is approved, both the government and TransCanada need to prove that they are
putting safety first.