Schweitzer: Pipelines Bigger Threat Than Wells in Montana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Tuesday that pipelines likely pose the biggest threat in Montana for a sizable oil or gas spill, although the chances appear very remote and any spill wouldn’t be anywhere near the size of the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

Schweitzer met with top officials from state agencies to discuss contingency plans in the wake of the Gulf oil spill that has befuddled BP PLC officials and regulators alike.

“We want to make sure we get this right if we ever find ourselves in this situation,” the governor said during the meeting.

Schweitzer was told that all of the oil wells in Montana combined don’t produce as much oil as the huge gusher deep in the Gulf. BP’s leaking well is 100 times larger than the biggest well that could conceivably be discovered in Montana, he said.

The governor said the worst-case scenario in the state would involve a well or pipeline close to a large river. Agency officials said many systems are in place to prevent a large volume of oil or gas from getting in the water.

For instance, wells must be a minimum of quarter mile away and have a containment pond that would catch any oil flow for several days. Emergency equipment and money is on hand to contain and cap a renegade well. And most wells in Montana flow poorly, with low pressure.

Pipelines in the state, many which are getting old, pose a bigger potential problem. But, still, several systems would have to break down for a pipe leak to go undetected and result in a sizable spill, Schweitzer said.

“That is the worst-case scenario,” he said. A spill also would have to be close to a river for such a leak to be difficult to contain.

“A spill into water is indeed a big deal,” said Tom Richmond, administrator of the Montana Oil and Gas Conservation Board.

Richmond said there are several pipeline cooperatives in the state that house cleanup material anyone can use.

Schweitzer said he also wants to make sure companies cover any liability caused by a spill. He asked the agency officials to investigate the issue further.

“I want to know what they are going to do if it starts leaking, are they just going to skedaddle back to Canada or wherever they came from and leave us hanging?” Schweitzer said.

Richard Opper, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said pipeline companies should be required to post cleanup bonds like mining and drilling companies. He said private insurance held by the firms is not a good guarantee for the state.

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. is hoping to start construction on the 1,980-mile Keystone XL pipeline, part of a $12 billion investment to move crude extracted from Canada’s oil sands to refineries in the United States. It would go through Montana.

Opper said he has investigated allegations that the company is not using a thick enough material for its pipe. He found the company is using a stronger but slightly thinner material that will be strong enough for the job.