skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Bobby McEnaney’s Blog

Yellowstone River Damaged by Exxon Pipeline Oil Spill -- Exxon's History in Montana Continues Its Abysmal Path

Bobby McEnaney

Posted July 3, 2011

, , , ,
Share | | |

Oil in Montana's Yellowstone River  Photo by NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky

While everyone is holding their collective breath, hoping that future developments do not worsen regarding the news that an Exxon pipeline carrying oil crude broke in the middle of the Yellowstone River outside of Billings Montana releasing thousands of gallons of crude into the river, industry’s record for safeguarding oil and gas pipelines in the state of Montana – and Exxon specifically – is dismal.

While we cannot predict what will happen in the near future, if other Big Oil disasters are any evidence, we can probably foresee in the next few hours and days that Exxon will pull out an all too familiar public relations playbook to avoid further scrutiny of their actions in order to avoid full culpability:

One, Exxon will claim that the immediate disaster is over and the natural resource damage and impacts to human health are minimal.  They will also likely underreport, or deemphasize the amount of oil actually spilled. A day into the disaster, Exxon has already begun to do this.  Exxon spokesman have said that the spill has been fairly well contained and that there is "very little soiling" of stream banks beyond 10-miles.  Given that no one has been able to actually inspect the ruptured pipeline, since its submerged at the bottom of a raging free-flowing river that is two-feet above flood stage, one wonders how Exxon can claim so soon that everything is now abated and the damage is negligible.

Two, Exxon will pledge that they will fully clean and repair the damaged resources.  Again, Exxon is saying as much in a statement today, “We will stay with the cleanup until it is complete…" Even if this is the case and Exxon is fully committed to cleanup, we know that their version of what is cleaned is not the same as others – see Prince William Sound.  Exposure to oil, especially to aquatic life, is devastating and long-lasting (see NRDC’s Matthew Skoglund and his recent posting on the importance of the Yellowstone River’s fishery for the region and beyond).

Three, Exxon will claim that safety is their number one priority. Predictably, Exxon has said as much in the last 24-hours, that the pipeline was inspected six months ago and met "all regulatory requirements.” Given their emphasis on oversized profits, I would go back to the previous exhibit, which speaks to Exxon’s thought process, leading it to site an oil pipeline on the most scenic, ecologically critical, and longest undammed river in the contiguous United States. 

Four, Exxon will probably maintain that this was a freak accident and could not have been foretold or prevented.  A full airing of Exxon’s record will show that this is simply not the case.  One only has to look at how it has maintained (or not) their Yellowstone Pipeline.  The Yellowstone Pipeline is a 550-mile pipeline that originates from the refineries in Billings, MT, makings its way westward to deliver petroleum products to Idaho and the state of Washington (the Yellowstone Pipeline and the Silvertip crude pipeline that failed this week, are nominally part of a larger system that Exxon oversees).  The pipeline was sited in some of the most rugged country to be found in this nation.  But rather than respecting the fact that the Yellowstone Pipeline was situated in such a harsh environment, Exxon and Conoco who co-managed the pipeline, failed often to maintain it satisfactorily.  In its 55-plus year history, it has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum into Montana’s rivers and lands. 

Most famously, Exxon and Conoco in the mid 1990’s realized that a right-of-way for the Yellowstone Pipeline that went through the middle of the sovereign Flathead Indian Reservation, was soon to expire and had to be renewed with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes who controlled the lease. Problem was the pipeline had spilled at least 71 times on the 1.2 million acre reservation, contaminating tribal fishing and hunting grounds.  When it came time to renew, the tribal members had only recently witnessed a spill with the pipeline that resulted in a whopping 163,000 gallons leaking into a reservation creek.   

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, were to say the least, reticent to renew the lease given the damage that Exxon and company had caused.  In this milieu, the Yellowstone Pipeline management went to the extraordinary measure of publicly apologizing to tribal members by posting a full-page advertisement in the tribal newspaper saying, "We've done serious damage to the land’ ‘For this we are truly sorry ' We're asking for a chance to do things right."  And while Exxon and Conoco approved the ad, they did not notice the howling coyote that was seemingly inserted by the paper’s staff within the oil company’s advertisement.  As High Country News reported at the time, “Tribal members must have noticed: Coyote is known as a trickster in many tribal legends, one who can't always be trusted.”  With that, the tribal members rejected the renewal of the lease, and turned away from millions of dollars from Exxon; possibly realizing that millions in dollars cannot compensate for the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.

Which brings me back to Claim #4, in trying to pawn this accident as a freak occurrence. Exxon can commit all they want to cleaning up the damage – as they should – but we should question the accidental nature of these incidents.  As history has shown, Exxon has often chosen a path that allows for spills, and the environment and human health are often the losers.  The Yellowstone spill might actually be a rare accident – if and when all the facts come to light – but this only proves that stronger enforcement and accountability for current pipelines are an absolute must. 

Note: this is not the only insult to Montana’s environment that is happening under Exxon’s watch.  Exxon also plans to turn the scenic highways of Montana into an industrial superhighway to serve tar sands extraction in Canada by sending hundreds of “megaload” shipments through the state’s scenic highways.   For more information see: Exxon Solves Their Megaload Problem - By Cutting the Trees to Shreds.


Creative Commons photo of oil in Montana's Yellowstone River, on Flickr, by NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky.

Share | | |


patricia farkasJul 3 2011 08:12 PM

this company is so irresponsible, they have created soooo many disasters and they are never held FULLY responsible and should be shut down permanetaly... NEVER EVER ALLOWED TO FORM UNDER AND ASSUMED NAME WITH THE SAME MONEY HUNGRY UNCLE TOM'S TAKING PROFIT OVER SAFETY!!!

JenniferJul 3 2011 08:33 PM

i agree with everything posted here regarding how Exxon will handle (??) this.

One thing i just want to add to the statement regarding it potentially being said that "it was a freak accident and could not have been foretold or prevented" -- sure it could have. and definitely prevented if it wasn't there in the first place! (as with any pipeline or offshore oil rig).
It thoroughly disgusts me that the only thing that matters to big oil/big business is money....bottom line. what will all these money hungry "enough is never enough" people do, when they've allowed this world (any and all species included) to be completely destroyed ?? once everyone and everything is gone - there won't be any need for money!
we should be doing what we can and start giving back to our ecosystems and all other species we share this planet with. Everything we do to cause further damage will have reprocutions...some immediate and others will be shown in the future.

SusanJul 3 2011 09:42 PM

These are precisely my thoughts about all of these grotesque man made disasters:

"Only after the last tree is cut down
The last of the water poisoned
The last animal destroyed
Only then will you realize
You can not eat money"

-Cree Indian Prophecy

Danielle McNeelyJul 3 2011 11:06 PM

The Exxon Valdez spill was so bad. Exxon said they would clean it up....... The BP spill in the Gulf was horrible. BP said they would clean it up.... The Yellowstone spill is bad. Exxon says it will clean it up......and so on and so on. Same song 4th verse. Shame on all the Big Oil companies !!!

Trudy jermanovichJul 3 2011 11:58 PM

The Oil Companies special tax subsidies in action. They love to save money anyway they can & then raise gasoline prices to scare off the public!

Chace SmithJul 5 2011 12:43 PM

The OSEI Corporation has alerted the federal on scene coordinators with the Coast Guard and EPA for RRT VIII there is enough OSE II to remediate approximately 1,000,000 gallons of fuel or oil in their Dallas warehouse. OSE II was successfully tested by Exxon for the Valdez spill and was recently successfully tested by BP for the Gulf, where BP has requested the implementation of OSE II on the Gulf spill. OSE II was successfully used by the US EPA on a similar spill on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma, where a pipeline ruptured that crossed over the river. OSE II has successfully cleaned up over 16,000 spills since 1989, and can be used equally on fresh or salt water spills. OSE II was successfully demonstrated in Waveland Beach Mississippi on sensitive marsh grass, and OSE II cleaned up over a 5,000 gallon spill for Texaco on fresh water as well. OSE II is the non toxic first response clean up product that will quickly return the river banks to pre spill conditions.
See link to EPA river clean up with OSE II

Mark GallJul 8 2011 04:10 PM

I hope this spill, and the multitude of spills before it, will finally create the climate to forge ahead faster on renewable energy alternatives for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Currently, many companies have little incentive to create environmentally responsible technologies, as our Government continues to provide tax breaks worth many millions of dollars for outdated technology.

Geb RuikeJul 9 2011 06:46 PM

We should most certainly take scrutiny to the "freak accident" claim. Perhaps the freak accidents are too great a risk for the reward. I talked about similar topics here:

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Bobby McEnaney’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In