No serious reporting is ever done on this in the state. I’m not surprised – both Montana Republicans and Montana Democrats cozy up to the oil industry as much as they can, for they know they need that money. It’s sad, it really is sad that politicians beholden to campaign contributions can get away with being an accessory to destruction. I doubt this will change.
The Yellowstone Pipeline’s Original Route
The article says how the Yellowstone Pipeline stretches for 531 miles across three states – Montana, Idaho and Washington. The “10-inch steel line” goes from Billings to Spokane and was described as an “underground freight line.”
It was reported in 1954 that four oil firms owned the Yellowstone Pipeline. Continental Oil and Interstate Oil Pipe Line owned a 40% stake each, while Union Oil of California owned 14% and Havre’s H. Earl Clack company owned the remaining 6%.
The thing with the Yellowstone Pipeline, and just about all oil pipelines, is that it has to constantly remain full of oil that’s under pressure. That’s a lot of oil, 300,000 barrels worth to be exact. And that oil is constantly underground, and flowing right past some of our most spectacular locales. Here’s how the IR described the route:
“The fluid in the line moves at about two miles an hour, surging along the Yellowstone valley, up Livingston hill over Bozeman pass, across the Gallatin valley, along the Missouri river past Townsend and Toston and into Helena, [the] only pumping station on the line outside Billings. Here the pumps lift the fluid over 6,325-foot MacDonald pass west of Helena, highest point on the line. From here the production flows like water down a flume into Spokane.”
The Yellowstone Pipeline stretched from Billings to Spokane and connected Montana oil to the wider world in a whole new way. The pipeline and the numerous other oil businesses that rushed to Billings in the 1950s ensured that it’d remain the oil king of the state, and an economic and political powerhouse all its own. The city had weight, and it was supplied by oil money. By 1970 that was clear – the city’s refineries were processing more than 85% of the state’s oil.
Many time as of late that oil has flown right into the water. In 2011 the Yellowstone Pipeline ruptured, and the same happened again in 2015. Internet searches on the Yellowstone Pipeline will only bring up this – there’s nothing of the pipeline’s history, capacity, or anything else.
That’s a shame, for many don’t know how powerful Montana’s Indians are when it comes to telling Big Oil to go jump in the lake.
The 1995 Salish-Kootenai Shutdown
The thing was, the 7,000-member Salish and Kootenai tribes put a “howling coyote” onto the ad page, an age-old symbol that tipped readers off to the fact that they probably couldn’t trust this news.
By that point in time Conoco, Exxon, and Union Oil of California owned the Yellowstone Pipeline and Selden mentions how they “had underestimated their adversaries.” The lease was denied in October 1995, leaving the company “shocked about their predicament” and “scrambling to find an alternate route.”
The Salish and Kootenai are not tribes to mess around with. They're sovereign nations, first of all, so they don’t take guff from rich oilmen, rich oilmen take guff from them. This is the way nations should operate. The tribe was experiencing a late-20th-century renaissance in power, and they did not shy away from flexing it.
For the Yellowstone Pipe Line Co., this was a disaster. They’d need to find a new route for the “roughly 21 miles of the line” that ran through tribal lands. One of the big problems was getting that oil to Moses Lake, Washington, where the Fairchild Air Force Base used a lot for the refueling of its air tankers near Spokane.
The tribe let it be known as early as 1994 that the company would “be wise to get moving on a required environmental impact statement.” Unfortunately for the Yellowstone Pipeline Co., their “executives dragged their feet,” waiting “until just months before the old lease was due to expire to embark on a lengthy study.”
The company was scrambling. Before they’d had 20-year leases that paid $193,000, or “less than $5,000 per year.” Now, seeing their profits threatened, the company offered $7.3 million for a new 20-year lease, plus “a $5 million bond to cover future spills.” By July 1995 the offered amount had risen to $29 million, “plus promises of state-of-the-art monitoring, college scholarships, tribal employment, and cash for cultural programs.”
Conoco had $1.5 billion in profits that year, Exxon had profits of $2.49 billion in 1995, and Chevron – the company that Union Oil of California became – had profits of more than $100 billion between 2000 and 2005. The companies had the money to pay the tribes, but they chose not to. So the tribes told the oil companies to take a hike.
Why? Again, it’s simple – “the company couldn’t ensure there wouldn’t be more spills.”
"They didn't really care about what they're doing," says tribal elder Pat Pierre, a leader in the fight against the company. "All they want to do is make money. It sickens you. This pipeline is just not the Indian way. It destroys what we stand for. I saw a chance to get rid of it, so I went for it."
Rerouting the Yellowstone Pipeline
What continued to happen, however, were environmental disasters. In December 1995 and then in February 1996, severe flooding exposed several pipelines on Prospect Creek, Pricehard Creek, and the Coeur d’Alene River. It was clear that more breaches could occur, and likely would.
Still a new pipeline route between Missoula and Thompson Falls was approved by the Forest Service in 1996. You can find information on this in a Forest Service May 2001 report called “Changes to the Existing Yellowstone Pipeline Between Thompson Falls and Kingston.”
Trucking and train shipments of oil continued until 1998, when “shippers completed improvements for pipeline-rail transfers at their Missoula and Thompson Falls terminals.” After that, a plan for “eight pipeline reroute segments” that would “include ten new stream crossings” was sought.
The 2011 Yellowstone Pipeline Oil Spill
The 2011 Yellowstone Pipeline rupture spilled 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, or 1,500 barrels, on July 1. The Montana Department of Justice listed the spill at 63,000 gallons. The 12-inch pipeline had ruptured by Laurel. By July 6 there were 280 people cleaning it up. The Montana DOJ estimates that 1,000 people would eventually deploy to the spill area.
One of the main reasons this spill was so damaging was that the Yellowstone River was undergoing a 35-year high water event. This carried the oil further up onto land that it otherwise would have gone. Overall, the oil spread to 85 miles downstream, covering 11,000 acres.
In January 2015, it was ruled that “Exxon hadn’t adequately prepared for the possibility that flooding could cause the pipeline to fail.” Exxon was fined $1.05 million for the 2011 Yellowstone Pipeline oil spill. That represented .03% of the company’s $4.2 billion in profits made during just the second quarter of 2015. The company paid another $2 million to private landowners affected.
The 2015 Yellowstone Pipeline Oil Spill
On January 17, 2015, 1,200 barrels of oil leaked out of the Poplar Pipeline and into the Yellowstone River. This equals about 30,000 gallons. Three days later the amount spilled was up to 50,400 gallons of oil.
Technically, this was the Poplar Pipeline, which is operated by Bridger Pipeline. The pipeline only had a 1.5 inch breach, but it was enough.
Bridger Pipeline’s sister company, Belle Fourche Pipeline, “recorded 21 incidents over the same period,” which resulted in “a total of 273,832 gallons” of oil being spilled. No fines were ever issued.
The companies are owned by the True Family, which is headed up by Tad True.
Oil Pipelines cross water in more than 18,000 places in the US, so you know rich men like Tad True, men that are never fined for polluting the environment in any way that makes sense, will only continue to do so. Tad True’s Bridger Pipeline and Bell Fourche Pipeline are prime examples of this.
The Casper Star Tribune reported on January 31, 2015, in a story called “Montana oil spill latest in a long line of True companies pipeline breaks” that:
“Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. recorded 21 incidents, during which a total of 272,832 gallons of oil was spilled. Those figures did not include a 2014 spill in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where a corroded line led to a leak of some 25,000 gallons of crude.”
More than 6,000 Glendive residents had their water disrupted because of Tad True and his companies’ record. Something that might help is if the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had more than just one employee in Montana. The western region has just eighteen inspectors, according to the Casper newspaper.
Does it have to be this way? Do we need to have these giant multinational oil companies owning a pipeline that they do not maintain, and then when there is an accident, they cover up with bribes? Is this what Montana deserves?
I’d expect to read about this level of environmental degradation back in the Copper King days. Much like then, however, our daily newspapers and other media sources turn a blind eye to this. Our politicians do the same.
It’s now been nearly seven months since the 2015 Yellowstone Pipeline oil spill. Instead of trying to make this state more environmentally sound, however, our politicians continue to cozy up to Big Oil. There’s nothing in the media about it, a media which also happens to be corporate-controlled.
Indians have been using the Yellowstone River for generations and whites have been since the late-1700s. If we continue as we are, however, few today will want to. We know that Yellowstone National Park created 5,300 jobs in 2013, and it’s a good bet the Yellowstone River is creating quite a few thousand in Montana.
What will those people do when Tad True and his oil companies spill so much oil in that river that they can no longer work because people no longer want to visit?
I fully expect it’ll be another $1.05 million fine.
How does that make you feel?