HELENA — Dustin Monroe held up an old Gatorade bottle filled with orange, oil-contaminated water and implored Montana legislators to approve a bill that would ban fossil fuel pipelines from crossing under rivers and lakes.

“How many of us in this room would drink this?” Monroe, CEO of Native Generational Change, asked the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee during a hearing for House Bill 486 on Monday.

The measure would ban pipelines with a diameter of 10 inches or greater from going under navigable water bodies and establish construction requirements for them to cross above ground, including rules on casings and leak detection. The new regulations would apply to fossil fuels such as crude petroleum, coal and their products.

The bill’s introduction comes after several major spills into Montana rivers over the last decade, ranging from Glendive to Billings. And it comes as the nation debates the best methods to transport crude oil, what risk to water sources is acceptable, and how far tribal sovereignty extends when projects cross aboriginal lands that are no longer tribally owned, as was the case outside Standing Rock where thousands have gathered for months to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The decision by President Donald Trump in January to revive the Keystone XL pipeline project with a handful of executive actions drew a mixed response. As proposed, 284 miles of the 1,700-mile project would cut through Montana, crossing the Canadian border north of Malta and passing into South Dakota north of Ekalaka.  It would cross the Missouri River near Fort Peck and the Yellowstone River south of Glendive. It would transport Canadian Tar Sands crude — argued to be more difficult or impossible to clean up because it is thicker than other oils — to southern U.S. refineries and ports.

The current industry standard for crossing streams, rivers and lakes is to use horizontal drilling — the same technology used in some oil exploration — to dig tunnels underneath them. Federal rules require pipelines to be at least four feet deeper than water bodies, but opponents of the bill said Monday most are now dug 20 to 60 feet deep, depending on geographic features.

Rep. George Kipp III said the bill, which he introduced, is as much about protecting underground aquifers from contamination as it is about rivers and streams.

“The further you get from the surface, the closer you get to the (aquifers) down there,” he said. “It’s not reasonable, it’s not rational to go between two fresh water sources with a major contaminant.”

The Heart Butte Democrat and Blackfeet tribal member said Montana needs to take a more hands-on approach to fulfilling the state constitution’s requirement for “a clean and healthful environment” by updating and expanding its oversight of how these products are transported across the state.

“It is time for the State of Montana and this legislative body to start structuring some sideboards and provide some controls…As we know, all manmade objects are designed to break at some point in time,” he said. “Ask yourself, how do you fix a leak 40 feet under the water? How do you protect the aquifer under it? How do you preserve that water for your grandchildren? I think going overhead is a simple fix that allows you to actually get to a line and fix it.”

Representatives from several tribal and environmental organizations, including Indian People’s Action and the Montana Environmental Information Center testified in support of the bill. Opponents included the Montana Petroleum Association, representatives from pipeline and refinery companies and the AFL-CIO, the state’s largest union.

“This is the most safe way to do it,” MPA Spokeswoman Jessica Sena said of underground transmission arguing against crossing rivers aboveground. “They’re more exposed. We’ve seen pipeline tampering. We’ve seen protests… I don’t think this will make anything more safe.”

Gary Forrester of WBI Energy worried that moving pipelines to the surface would be “a perfect invitation for somebody that’s willing to create an act of terror.” The Glendive-based company was fined after a natural gas pipeline near Laurel broke that he admits “probably wasn’t put in deep enough.” It has since been replaced at a new depth of 20 feet.  

Peggy Trenk of the Treasure State Resources Association cited other incidents of aboveground pipelines breaking, such as when one was shot by a drunk man in Alaska and when three teen boys broke one searching for treasure.

“It just invites people to do stupid things,” she said.

The committee took no action on the bill Monday.

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