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Jim Hall: Be responsible, safe with XL pipeline

Omaha World Herald - August 17th, 2012
The writer is a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is the managing partner of Hall & Associates LLC, a safety consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

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 Eisenhower’s mantra.

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 million.

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 the problem.

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. 

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