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Barge Spill Shows All Oil Transport Has Risks

Barge on MississippiAny way we choose to move our oil – rail, pipeline or barge – businesses will feel the economic and environmental ramifications.

The latest case in point: a barge crash last Saturday that spilled about 31,500 gallons of light crude into the Mississippi River, about 50 miles upstream of New Orleans. The spill shut a stretch of the nation’s busiest waterway for two days, stalling 29 vessels and delaying goods including grains and chemicals, Bloomberg reports.

On Monday, 65 miles of the river reopened, with restrictions.

The Coast Guard said drinking water was not affected by the spill, and it received no reports of oiled wildlife.

Tanker and barge shipments of crude from the midwest to the Gulf Coast skyrocketed from close to nothing in 2005 to 21.5 million barrels in 2012, Bloomberg reports, citing the Energy Information Administration.

American Waterways Operators spokesperson Anne McCulloch said that at the same time, the amount of oil spills in US waterways has fallen dramatically.

But the incident highlights one risk of shipping oil by barge – giving no easy answers to a nation that has seen numerous oil train derailments in recent months, and is weighing the merits of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline’s 487-mile southern leg opened last month between Cushing, Okla., and Nederland, Texas. The State Department must still make a decision on Keystone’s longer northern leg, which would enable crude from Alberta’s oil sands to flow down to the US Gulf Coast.

On Wednesday, the department’s inspector general concluded that contractor Environmental Resources Management, which prepared an environmental analysis of the pipeline, did not violate conflict-of-interest rules.

The final decision is up to President Obama, who has said that he will block the pipeline if it increases carbon emissions.

Takeaway: A spill on the Mississippi this week held up shipments of a variety of goods, and served as a reminder that there is no problem-free way to transport the fuel.

Tamar Wilner is Senior Editor at Environmental Leader PRO.

Picture credit: Roy Luck via flickr

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