By early July 2011, some parts of Montana had been grappling with floods for more than a month. The high water appeared to be finally receding when a ruptured pipeline – presumably caused by soil erosion from the flooding – was found spilling oil into the Yellowstone River near Laurel.

In no time at all, some 63,000 gallons of crude had contaminated some 85 miles of river. State officials and Exxon Mobil Corp., which is responsible for the pipeline, launched a cleanup almost immediately.

For its part, Exxon spent $135 million on the cleanup and on repairing its 12-inch Silvertip pipeline. Additionally, the company has also paid or is disputing a total of $3.4 million in fines – and it may be on the hook for more. Just a couple of weeks ago, Montana put Exxon on notice that it expects Exxon to pay for further studies, and the environmental damages those studies are likely to reveal.

In fact, the state’s investigation, with the help of federal officials, points to the cleanup itself as one source of damage. When the oil was removed from the riverbanks, those banks were also stripped of many of the living organisms that make their home in those places.

Which is just more evidence that the only thing better than thoroughly cleaning up oil spills is preventing oil spills from happening in the first place. And to that end, the federal Department of Transportation is expected to bring a list of new pipeline recommendations to Congress in just a few more months. Given Montana’s carefully balanced position at the intersection of energy development and environmental protection, the state’s congressional delegates ought to pay especially close attention to those recommendations – and do their utmost to ensure they preserve that balance.

Pipelines are a necessary part of oil extraction and development, and Montana sports approximately 6,700 miles of pipelines. With the Bakken oil boom on Montana’s eastern border, and the Keystone XL pipeline proposal being pushed by major energy interests, the state has a lot to gain from encouraging oil companies to construct pipelines here.

But with blue-ribbon rivers and other pristine natural resources, Montana also has a vested interest in making sure every inch of pipeline is as spill-proof as possible.

Oil leaks should not be a regular occurrence, yet Montana sees, on average, six small spills a year. In fact, at about the same time the Silvertip spill was discovered, another oil spill was discovered running into Cut Bank Creek on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. FX Energy Inc. is responsible for that pipeline.

In response to both spills, in July 2011 Gov. Brian Schweitzer created a new Pipeline Safety Review Council. The council’s three members – the heads of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Montana Department of Transportation – worked with the owners of Montana’s pipelines and federal regulators to come up with a concise set of recommended improvements. Those recommendations, released for public view in May 2012, ranged from requiring pipeline companies to make use of leak detection technology to setting up a system to notify the public when leaks occur.

The Department of Transportation is still conducting its investigation of “hazardous liquid pipelines” with an emphasis on pipelines that cross rivers. Currently, regulations at such crossings require pipelines to be at least 4 feet deep in most instances.

After the Silvertip oil spill, several pipeline companies took it upon themselves to update and improve more than a dozen pipeline/river crossings. They did so after federal regulators identified specific problems at specific crossings. Clearly, cooperation between federal and state officials and pipeline companies is more beneficial for all involved than fines and costly cleanups after a major spill.

All pipelines – existing and new – ought to adhere to strict guidelines that appropriately balance the benefits of pipelines against the potential environmental hazard they pose. Montana’s recent history provides an excellent example of the need for this balance, which is why Montana’s leaders in Congress ought to make sure any new federal regulations move us closer to achieving it.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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Well stated. I agree.

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