While Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials and Suncor Petroleum staff claim the recent oil spill that led to the contamination of Sand Creek and the South Platte River has been contained, thorough evidence and sampling data since the initial clean up phase have not been openly shared.
As of December 6th, the EPA declared contamination into the South Platte River had been minimized and that over 3,500 gallons of “gasoline-type” material had been recovered from Sand Creek. The EPA asserts that the 220 foot long trench built to collect further seepage “appears to be effective in containing and collecting residual seeping material.” Although Suncor has admitted fault in the spill, its exact cause and location remain either unknown or undisclosed.
The Commerce City Suncor refining facility already faces about $130,500 in fees for violations of over twenty-five serious safety and health standards. The company has supposedly been unable to pass requisite safety measures during the processing of dangerous chemicals, and failed to properly examine detection equipment for hazardous gas.
Suncor’s spill incident and neglect for environmental and human safety issues are not unique in the fossil fuel sector. The aging of infrastructure, lack of care, and rising geopolitical pressures facing the industry compound the sensitivity to price shocks as well as the frequency of spills. The combined effects of the ongoing destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa, coupled with the disasters of BP’s massive Gulf Spill, Exxon’s Yellowstone River spill of mid 2011, Shell’s 40,000 barrel slip up off the coast of Nigeria, and our own Suncor mishap are indicative of the mounting instability in both oil infrastructure and supply.
While enormous disasters such as BP’s Gulf spill are well-known, lesser and more frequent spills and safety issues are commonly overlooked. In 2006, for example, BP was forced to shut down corroded pipelines in Alaska’s North Slope after a 5,000 barrel spill. The result was a loss of 400,000 barrels of oil per day, or about 8% of US domestic production. Oil prices surged some 3% in response.
Alaska project for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s director Charles Clusen was not surprised by the issue, explaining, “These companies have not been putting the money into infrastructure up there.” Oil analysts with Oppenheimer and Co. substantiated this assertion and applied it to oil companies in general, who have mostly neglected proper upkeep and safety procedures.
The situation is similar on a global level. On December 22nd, Nigerian officials invoked emergency procedures to contain the area’s worst oil spill in 13 years. Shell claims nearly 40,000 barrels of oil were released near the Nigerian coast due to a failure in hardware.
Social pressure and environmental concern are rapidly mountain against the expansion of fossil fuel projects. In Washington over 10,000 protestors recently met to express their disapproval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Protestors joined arms to create an almost 2 mile long human chain around the White House. A decision on the pipeline was postponed, signalling a temporary victory for the environmental movement. A final decision regarding the pipeline is expected by the end of the year. If allowed, the Keystone XL project would transport some 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to be refined in the Gulf Coast.
Oil prices and availability do not reflect geological reserves or potential; they fluctuate with a multitude of geopolitical, social, and environmental conditions – all of which are becoming more prone to rapid shifts and unpredictable trends. Adjusting to peak oil and global change circumstances will require a massive mobilization and effort from all facets of society; the petroleum sector must participate in transition and restoration while it still has the resources to do so.