Yellowstone River crude oil spill could be double announced numbers

By Bob van der Valk

Impact of crude oil spill on Yellowstone River unknown by ExxonMobil officials,

Dateline: Terry, Montana
Update as of July 4, 2011 – 7:00 a.m MDT
By: Bob van der Valk

Estimating the quantity of crude oil spilled from the ExxonMobil pipeline into the Yellowstone River was posted on the www.montanawithkids.com web site yesterday morning.

This morning's Billings Gazette reported Duane Winslow, Yellowstone County Director of Disaster and Emergency Services contacted downstream communications centers through teletype messages sent to County Sheriffs departments at about 3 a.m. Saturday, July 2nd. I called Prairie County Sheriff Bill Klunder, at 1 p.m. and again at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 2nd to verify he was made aware of the crude oil spill into Yellowstone River. He said he had not heard anything or given any warning about the oil spill until my call.

Gary Pruessing, who is the President of ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, was quoted in the Billings Gazette most of the soil contamination was within 5 to 10 miles downstream from the pipeline break from Laurel, Montana along the Yellowstone River.

According to Pam Malek, the spokesperson for ExxonMobil, the pipeline was shut down within half an hour after the rupture was detected. Normally 40,000 barrels of crude oil flows through the pipeline each day and makes up a majority of the crude oil refined by the ExxonMobil refinery in Laurel, Montana. They will now have to switch to transporting the oil by either using trucking or railcars in order to keep their refinery at full operating capacity.

ExxonMobil is minimizing or as it is called "mitigating the damage" caused by the "unauthorized release of crude oil into a water way" by grossly underestimating the amount of crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone after the pipeline ruptured. The damage to pipeline was not caused by an accident such as a ship running into the underground pipeline and puncturing it as it is buried 6 feet under the river's bottom.

Rather it was caused over time by the constant flow of debris hitting an exposed portion of the pipeline. The crude oil leaked out until pressure in the feeder line was noted by an operator, who would then have shut it down for further investigation. The oil would have continued leaking out of the pipeline into the Yellowstone River undetected until it showed up in globs on the river banks and sheens formed on the surface.

It is difficult to determine the exact amount of the crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River and surrounding land but ExxonMobil's estimate of 750 to 1,000 barrels is a gross underestimate.

Bob van der Valk lives in Terry , Montana and is a Petroleum Industry Analyst with over 50 years of experience in the petroleum, gasoline and lubricants industry. He has been quoted by the news media and his opinions are also solicited by government entities. You can reach Bob at: tridemoil@aol.com or (406) 853-4251. Use of any or all parts of this article is permitted with attribution to the writer.

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Crude oil spill has reached historic Lewis and Clark's Pompey's Pillar

Update as of July 3, 2011 8:00 a.m. MDT
By: Bob van der Valk

Fines of up to $8 million could be assessed to ExxonMobil for the Friday, July 1, 2011 oil spill due to a rupture in the crude oil pipeline underneath the Yellowstone River.

The flow chart below show the pipeline rate of crude oil from above ground storage tanks such as the ones in Wyoming connected to the ExxonMobil's Silvertip line into Billings.

Pipelines connecting oil and gas fields to refineries are called "feeder pipelines". Feeder pipelines normally carry liquid hydrocarbons such as crude oil and natural gas liquids. Typically, feeder pipelines range in size from 6 to 20 inches in diameter.

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Feeder pipeline flow rate chart

Adjusting the pipeline size from 16 down to the 12 inches of the Silvertip line, the flow rate will be reduced from 4,000 to 3000 gallons per minute or 180,000 gallons per hour. This translates to 4000 barrels per hour with 42 gallons in a barrel of crude oil.

Pam Malek, spokesperson for ExxonMobil, initially estimated the pipeline released 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River for about half an hour before being shut down. The amount of the release should have been estimated to have been about 90,000 gallons or 2000 barrels of crude oil, given the typical flow rate of the pipeline

Most of the crude oil will have initially settled on the Yellowstone river bottom, then wash with the fast moving stream of water east towards the North Dakota border and the conjunction between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. This will take days and the crude oil may show up on the river banks along the way. Oil has already been reported as far east as Miles City. Terry, the town in which I live, is only 45 miles away from Miles City and about 90 miles from Sidney, Montana.

An investigation will be conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as an independent regulatory agency within the Department of Energy, which:

  • Regulates the transmission and sale for resale of natural gas in interstate commerce;
  • Regulates the transmission of oil by pipeline in interstate commerce;
  • Regulates the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce;
  • Licenses and inspects private, municipal, and state hydroelectric projects;
  • Oversees related environmental matters;
  • Administers accounting and financial reporting regulations and conducts of jurisdictional companies; and
  • Approves siting and abandonment of interstate pipeline facilities.

The investigation may result in fines being assessed to ExxonMobil for an unauthorized release of oil into a water way. The typical fine for this type of spill is $4,300 a barrel with additional penalties assessed if gross negligence is found in the maintenance upkeep of the pipeline involved. My estimate of 2,000 barrels of crude oil would translate the fine into the $8 million mentioned in my first paragraph.

ExxonMobil will also be held responsible for all clean up and restoration of the Yellowstone River and surrounding areas including supplying water to affected farmers and ranchers along the route of the spill.

Bob van der Valk lives in Terry, Montana and is a Petroleum Industry Analyst with over 50 years of experience in the petroleum, gasoline and lubricants industry. He has been quoted by the news media and his opinions are also solicited by government entities. You can reach Bob at: tridemoil@aol.com or (406) 853-4251

Dateline: Terry, Montana – Update – July 2, 2011 – 8:30 pm MDT.

An ExxonMobil crude oil pipeline, underneath the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Montana, ruptured Friday night around 11:30 pm MDT. It sent an undetermined amount of oil down the Yellowstone River. The following map, which was prepared by the Custer County Conservation District and Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, shows the area affected by the oil spill:

Yellowstone River in Montana


The rupture occurred in a 12-inch line near the boat ramp at Riverside Park near Laurel, Montana. Crude oil has been washing along shore from Laurel to Lewis and Clark's trail sight of Pompey's Pillar and the fast moving river will continue to push the oil sheen to the east towards Sidney.

Most of the crude oil will initially settle on the river bottom then wash and move east towards the North Dakota border and the conjunction between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. This may take days and the oil will eventually show up on the river banks.

The rupture most likely occurred by the fast moving rocks and other debris puncturing the crude oil pipeline, which was initially installed 6 feet underneath the river bottom.

All Disaster and Emergency Services and Department of Environmental Quality (DES and DEQ) personnel between Billings and Sidney have been notified of crude oil potentially showing up in and on the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Early this morning Governor Brian Schweitzer, Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) and other state agencies were notified by Yellowstone County DES that crude oil was released into the Yellowstone River from an ExxonMobil refinery pipeline at Laurel and that evacuations had taken place in the immediate area of the spill due to the odor from the oil.

"Disaster and Emergency Services, Department of Environmental Quality and other involved state agencies will monitor Exxon Mobile and any other responsible parties until this spill and impacts of this spill are completely cleaned up. The parties responsible will restore the Yellowstone River," said Governor Schweitzer.

According to ExxonMobil there was an "undetermined amount of crude oil" spilled into the Yellowstone River. The last reported sighting of oil was at 12:20 p.m. on July 2nd at Hysham, Montana in Treasure County.

ExxonMobil has reduced production from its 60,000 barrels per day (bp/d) refinery in Billings, Montana, following the Friday night crude oil spill from the 40,000 b/pd Silvertip pipeline running 6 feet underneath the riverbed of the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Montana.

Two similar sized refineries, ConocoPhillips and Cenex, near Billings were initially shut down as a precaution but are now back in full operation.

The public should contact their local DES offices in their respective counties for reporting about the spill or if they questions or concerns. Citizens who find oil or see damage should call the ExxonMobil Claims Line at 888-382-0043

Dispatch offices were notified by Yellowstone County DES as far downstream as Sidney. The Department of Environmental Quality is continuing to make further notifications through their Public Water Supply Division as needed.

State DES has been in contact with ExxonMobil, the responsible party of the incident, and they indicated they were mobilizing their response teams. State DES has contacted REGION VIII Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who has also mobilized their response crews. They indicated that they will set-up a Unified Command for the incident including EPA, State of Montana and ExxonMobil.

Other notifications by State DES were made to the following entities: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, North Dakota Disaster and Emergency Management, National Response Center (for incidents involving Hazardous Materials), PPL Montana.

Bob van der Valk lives in Terry, Montana and is a Petroleum Industry Analyst with over 50 years of experience in the petroleum, gasoline and lubricants industry. He has been quoted by the news media and his opinions are also solicited by government entities. You can reach Bob at: tridemoil@aol.com or (406) 853-4251

Published July 2, 2011