Unnatural Disaster in the Natural State

by: Kara McGhee

April 6, 2013

Arkansas is known as “the Natural State.” Its landscape boasts everything from mountains, crystal clear natural springs, open plains and the kind of woodlands you’d see in a Disney movie. Crater of Diamonds State Park, located in Murfreesboro, is the world’s only diamond-bearing site open to the public; take that, De Beers!

Pinnacle Mountain Arkansas WILD mag world
Pinnacle Mountain, Arkansas

But something very unnatural has tainted my beloved Natural State: an oil spill. There have been oil spills in New Jersey, Montana, Michigan, Utah, Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, California, Massachusetts—and now Arkansas—within the last decade. Our dependence on oil, and the consequences of such dependency, are breaking my Arkansas heart.

On Friday, March 29 oil began spilling out of the Pegasus Pipeline into a suburban neighborhood of Mayflower, Ark. The EPA categorized the incident as a “major spill,” a spill larger than 250 barrels. An estimated 12,000 barrels of oil were spilled. We get about 19 gallons of gasoline from a barrel of oil, so that’s 228,000 gallons of gasoline, which—at 22 mpg (about the average for a car) is 5,016,000 miles. The circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles. The oil spilled in Mayflower, Ark could take us around the world 201 times.

Mayflower Spill WILD mag world

Twenty-two homes were evacuated. Wildlife are dying. The local ecosystem is suffering. The spill almost contaminated Lake Conway, a vital local water supply. Mayflower and the surrounding area have reeked of oil fumes for nearly a week. Twenty-six-year old resident, Sara Mullally smells the oil on her way home from work along Interstate 40. She described it as “repugnant.” Karen Lewis, 54, told the Associated Press that her family could smell the oil out in the country, five miles from the spill site.

Oil Spill Arkansas WILD mag world
Victim of the Mayflower Spill

Reports about the type of oil leaking from the Pegasus Pipeline are varied, but according to Exxon, the spilled oil is conventionally produced Canadian heavy crude oil. Heavy crude oil is a blanket term for any type of crude oil with a density higher than that of light crude oil. In this case, heavy crude oil is a euphemism for tar sands oil. ExxonMobil has legal and monetary incentive to label the spilled oil tar sands because unlike crude oil, tar sands is tax-free. On the other hand, ExxonMobil can improve their public image by leading the public to believe that this was a conventional oil spill, which is less dangerous and expensive than a tar sands spill.

In May of 2011, the IRS declared that tar sands oil is not crude oil, which created a legal loophole allowing companies like ExxonMobil to pump tar sands oil without paying taxes into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The OSLTF covers the costs of cleaning up oil spills and pays damages when a company spills. Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee said in 2011:

Tar sands is already the dirtiest, riskiest oil around. It shouldn’t get a free ride from the U.S. taxpayer when it comes to paying into this vital spill response fund. Oil companies already receive outrageous tax subsidies that total billions of dollars and there is no defensible reason for this oil spill free ride to be added to that dubious list of loopholes.

The oil from the Exxon Pipeline Spill came from a bitumen deposit in Alberta, Canada. Tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay, and water saturated in bitumen- a heavy black viscous oil similar to tar. Tar sands oil cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, extracted, and upgraded. Tar sands are processed at a high monetary and environmental cost in order to generate oil similar to that of conventional oil wells, and large amounts of water and energy are needed for all the heating and pumping that goes into extracting them. It takes two tons of tar sands to produce just one barrel of oil. The majority of the world’s remaining oil is not conventional oil from oil wells; the oil we have left is dirty, thick, and difficult to process. In the aftermath of Enbridge’s 2010 tar sands oil spill in Michigan clean up crews found that the tar sands oil had to be removed from every level of the river—it even sunk into the sediment.

Tar Sands WILD mag world
Tar Sands

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is investigating the spill, told NPR he thinks underground pipelines are essential to keeping the country’s economy going. “We got to have that, but it has to be maintained,” McDaniel said. “It has to be inspected.”

Oil pipelines filled with processed tar sands oil are not essential; instead they are oil companies’ way of hanging on to and continuing to profit from a toxic, finite resource. This is especially true when we consider predications about peak oil. Peak oil is the point in time when maximum oil production is reached, after which the rate of petroleum extraction terminally declines.

The International Energy Agency claims that we most likely reached peak oil back in 2006. In light of this information, it makes little sense for anyone besides big oil to cling to this old-world form of energy that over time becomes more dangerous and costly to produce. As oil’s place atop the energy hierarchy is threatened, public relations measures become even more essential for ExxonMobil and other big oilers. ExxonMobil uses public relations tactics to minimize the dangers associated with oil, and to ensure that the public remains apathetic or supportive of an American dependence on oil.

Late this week, in conjunction with ExxonMobil, the Federal Aviation Administration instated a no-fly zone over the contaminated area in Mayflower. The press and bystanders are no longer allowed near the site. With the no-fly zone in place ExxonMobil can ensure that no more incriminating aerial views like this one reach the public eye. ExxonMobil has stake in controlling the narrative of this event in order to maintain a favorable public image, and reportedly gave Easter baskets to the victims of the spill. For a corporation, this is a low-cost gesture with a big emotional payoff—a common public relations strategy.

Mayflower Spill aerial view WILD mag world

Mayflower Spill WILD mag world

Large corporations like ExxonMobil employ a full-time public relations team devoted to maintaining a favorable public image for the company. Public relations practitioners are trained in apologizing without accepting responsibility. They disguise advertising and self-promotion as journalism, all the while simultaneously minimizing the damage being done to a company’s reputation in a state of crisis. In the case of the recent Araknsas spill, ExxonMobil banned people from the area in an attempt to curtail the media blitz and negative press surrounding the Pegasus spill. Images, soundbites, and videos are incredibly influential tools in swaying public opinion, and ExxonMobil’s covert attempts to inhibit media coverage have been influential in reshaping the real story. This lack of transparency is an ominous cloud over the empty promises made to the 22 families that had to evacuate their homes. If we can deduce anything from the experiences of victims following other oil spills, my fellow Arkansans are in for years of litigation, frustration and injustice.

Mayflower Spill WILD mag world

This oil spill, like all others, is a brutal reminder of our unsustainable way of life. Big oil and ExxonMobil would like us to feel good or apathetic about oil—despite of the mounting evidence against it—so they can continue to make a lucrative profit. If we keep using oil, we will need more pipelines, and oil spills will remain a fact of life (or death).

We’ve all heard the mantra “Save the planet,” but it’s a bit off message. The planet will continue on without us. Even in the event of total nuclear war, the planet could recover and life could be possible again. But dangerous practices like fracking, extracting tar sands oil and mountaintop removal could easily make the planet uninhabitable for humankind. Perhaps the environmental movement should take a page from the public relations handbook and adopt a more ecologically accurate and cautionary message: SAVE OURSELVES!


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