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Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.
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(Photo: Kodda/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Kodda/Shutterstock)

An oil pipeline called Flanagan South that is currently under construction would stretch nearly 600 miles across four Midwestern states, over three major rivers, and through about 2,000 wetlands. The pipeline would carry diluted bitumen, or dilbit—a corrosive and sticky type of oil derived from Canadian tar sands that’s difficult to clean up. And it would be owned by Enbridge, a company notorious for spilling dilbit.

Yet a federal judge recently ruled that the pipeline needs no formal study of its overall environmental impact before the company can start operating it.

Perhaps U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has never heard of Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Mayflower, Arkansas—two places where ruptured pipelines have wreaked havoc on communities and ecosystems in recent years. But the ruling more likely results from a 2012 directive from President Obama to put U.S. pipelines on the fast track.

With hundreds of pipeline accidents occurring every year in the United States, one would think the courts would be demanding more environmental review, not less.

In an effort to facilitate oil transport within our country, the president told federal agencies to do all they can to expedite decisions concerning domestic pipelines. “Since then, we’ve seen federal agencies go to great lengths to cut corners and ignore federal laws that otherwise would have applied to pipelines,” Doug Hayes, one of the lawyers fighting Flanagan South, recently told Midwest Energy News.

Now 17 pipeline projects are currently under construction, and at least 15 more are in the works, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. Many of those pipelines will carry dilbit, a heavy crude oil typically thinned with natural gas before being compressed for transport.

Clean-up crews in Kalamazoo found out the hard way that bitumen becomes much heavier after the chemicals diluting it evaporate. Their usual clean-up method (skimming oil off the water’s surface) became ineffective once a million gallons of the stuff spewed from a mismanaged Enbridge pipeline and sank to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries. More than four years later, parts of the waterway are still a sticky mess.

Last year another dilbit pipeline burst in Mayflower, Arkansas, inundating the streets, yards, and homes of a suburban neighborhood with oil. With hundreds of pipeline accidents occurring every year in the United States—there have been more than 800 in the last three years—one would think the courts would be demanding more environmental review, not less.

In the recent past, comprehensive environmental impact statements were necessary before pipeline construction could even begin. Flanagan South, which will run from central Illinois to Oklahoma, is already near completion. The dilbit could start flowing before the end of this year.

This post originally appeared on OnEarth as “Fast Track to a Spill?” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.