Mayflower Oil Spill in perspective

The magnitude and scope of any major news story is subject to competing stories as well as the leanings of the reporting station.  The most recent example of this is a burst oil pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas.  Some people have asked why the story hasn’t gotten more notoriety.  With the current debate over the Keystone XL pipeline as hot a topic as ever, some feel that the event should be a cautionary tale for future pipelines through the U.S.  Others feel the scale of the spill is being overstated, used as a political tool for environmental fanatics.  Let’s take a look at other petroleum spills and oil pipelines in the U.S. to see if proper media attention has been allocated.

The most important thing to put into scale is the amount of liquid that was lost during the spill.  An estimated 260 tonnes of oil have spilled from the pipeline.  The spill ranks as the 19th most by tonnage in the U.S. in the last decade, and the range between spill tonnage is vast.  The Deepwater Horizon garnered months of media attention as the well spewed between 500,000 and 600,000 tonnes of oil, the second worst spill in U.S. history.  Given the magnitude of the spill, the daily reporting on the status of the repair and recovery seems warranted.  On the contrary, the storage tank spill in Serawen, New Jersey received much less national media attention, though it dumped nearly five times as much oil as the spill in Arkansas.  The likely reason for this is the amount of destruction around the spill also caused by Superstorm Sandy.  While the cause of the Mayflower spill is still under investigation, it occurred without natural disaster or other event to detract attention from the lost oil.

Another important aspect of the spill is that it occurred in oil transit, not at a production or storage location.  This fact is of importance because of the vast network of pipelines the U.S. already has installed and operating.

Petroleum Pipelines in the U.S.: Green for Oil, Red for Gas, Blue for Refined Products

Of the last ten major U.S. oil spills, half of the spills occurred in functioning pipelines.  Of the four besides the most recent Mayflower spill, two were of greater quantity.  Perhaps by design, most pipes carrying crude oil avoid major population centers.  As a result, most pipeline spills are also away from large populations.

Major U.S. oil pipeline spills over the last two decades

This trend holds true for the Mayflower spill as well.  The town has a low population density and does not border a major metropolitan area.  Properties are still being evacuated however, and expectations are that the houses tainted by oil will lose nearly all their property value.

Based on the relatively low spillage and the low to moderate environmental and community impact, it would seem that the media coverage of the Mayflower spill is above what is merited.  The story benefited from lack of other distraction or explanation as to the spill.  The story does deserve attention however in light of the massive cross-country pipeline currently being debated.  Despite the fact that pipelines rarely run near major metropolitan areas, the simple fact that  they burst without natural disaster or man-made catastrophe deserves major attention.


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