Exxon Seeks To Keep Pegasus Inspections Secret As KXL Twists in Wind

July 3, 2013

"ExxonMobil Corp.'s bid to shield from public view its inspection results for a shuttered pipeline that leaked at least 5,000 barrels of heavy Canadian oil sands crude in Arkansas this spring is galvanizing a debate over transparency and spill readiness that could affect the future of Keystone XL."

That story by Elana Schor came out June 27, 2013 in EnergyWire, raising questions that have still to be answered. Why on Earth would Exxon's pipeline company want to hide the results of a self-inspection done just a few weeks before the March 29, 2013, spill that inundated parts of Mayflower, Arkansas. The company also sought "confidential treatment" for results of another Pegasus self-inspection in 2010.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has not yet ruled on Exxon's claim of trade secrecy, but is expected to do so soon.

As the Obama administration faces a high-stakes political decision on whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline, secrecy may be its Achilles heel. Will the U.S. public believe that the secrecy protects trade secrets, intellectual property, and homeland security? — Or will they conclude that the secrecy protects regulators' negligence, pipelines' poor maintenance, decision-makers' conflicts of interest, and political deal-making? Government accountability and credibility are on the line. The potential safety of the KXL pipeline is a bone of contention — and PHMSA is unlikely to build public confidence in its ability to regulate effectively if it operates in secrecy.

This is not the only instance in which secrecy has dominated the Exxon Mayflower spill — or the oversight and regulation of pipeline safety. Even if we disregard Exxon's threat to arrest a reporter from the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News for trying to talk to a press officer — urgent pipeline safety issues that critically impact the public have been shrouded in secrecy since 9/11.

In the Mayflower incident, PHMSA is still waiting for Exxon to provide it with full metallurgical analysis of the pipe failure. PHMSA has extended the deadline for Exxon to turn over its full report three times (the latest deadline being July 10). And while PHMSA says officially that it is investigating the spill, those facts suggest PHMSA may in large part be relying on Exxon to investigate itself.

Whatever sense of urgency there may be about pipeline safety may be partly demonstrated by PHMSA's recent failure to provide for public availability of the safety standards they use in rulemakings. The safety standards are set by industry and incorporated into regulations by reference. In a 2011 pipeline safety reauthorization, Congress gave PHMSA one year to make those standards public. PHMSA hasn't done it. Now a new "bipartisan" bill from leaders in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would give PHMSA two more years to comply.