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Oil Spill Should Be A Wake-up Call

We’re now two weeks into the cleanup of the ExxonMobil oil spill in the Yellowstone River near Billings, and while we still don’t have all the answers — among them, exactly why the spill strarted, how much oil it actually involved and how much more effort the cleanup will take — a few things have become apparent.

Most importantly, we want the Yellowstone River put back the way it was before the spill. The state is absolutely right to demand no less of Exxon, and absolutely right to demand access, from both Exxon and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to the entire cleanup process, including records documenting the type of oil in the pipeline and the history of the pipeline itself.

There’s been some predictable politicization of the spill and its aftermath, with critics of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration saying the governor’s high-profile insistence that Exxon clean up its mess is bad for business in Montana, especially the for state’s natural resource economy.

Indeed, it’s easy to beat up on “big oil” when accidents like this take place, oil spills are easy targets. But isn’t at least some of the criticism deserved? Here’s a firm that cleared $11 billion in profit last year, now on the hook for cleaning up a leak in its 40-year-old pipeline. We know companies need to make a profit, but if just a fraction of that $11 billion had been put into improving infrastructure, perhaps we’re not having this conversation today.

We appreciate that determining what Exxon’s deliverable to the people of Montana isn’t entirely clear (When exactly is the work done?), but we have no problem with the state holding the company’s feet to the fire and insisting that it clean up its mess. People live along the Yellowstone River, they water their crops and slake the thirst of their cattle with its waters, and it’s got a deserved reputation as a world class fishery. All of that must be protected.

n In addition to being a public relations problem for Exxon, the spill presents at least as big a challenge for Montana’s tourism industry. We’re surely not the only ones with friends in far-flung places who have heard the words “oil spill” and “Yellowstone” in the same sentence and now believe the country’s flagship national park is awash in crude. At “only” a reported 1,000 barrels of oil this spill is dwarfed by other high-profile oil accidents in recent history, but nonetheless, there’s a perception out there among some people that Montana’s spectacular beauty has been irreparably compromised, and that’s a perception that needs to be stifled, fast.

n While from a geopolitical perspective it’s critically important that we find a way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, the spill proves that we ought to be seeking ways to use less oil, period, no matter where it comes from. We certainly don’t want the country beholden to oil exporting countries whose interests aren’t aligned with ours, but from the standpoint of protecting our waterways, domestic oil is just as troublesome as oil from the Middle East. The trout can’t tell the difference.

Obviously we can’t stop using oil tomorrow. Oil is too integrated in our economy and in our daily lives. But the spill should hasten the country’s search for cleaner alternatives. We say that not to be anti-industry, but to be pro-Montana. Too, the state is facing some major decisions regarding fossil fuel use and transport in the not-too-distant future. This spill should help set the bar higher when it comes to making sure those projects are done as safely as possible.

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