How cities and companies can clean up oil extraction

How cities and companies can clean up oil extraction

Oil spill image by

Remember that line in "The Beverly Hillbillies" song? "Then one day he was shooting for some food, and up through the ground come a bubbling crude ..."

Tapping the earth's energy sources never was quite that easy, but it's far more difficult today when we've exhausted the stores of carbon and oil that once sat close to the Earth's surface. A modern-day Jed Clampett would have to dig 3,000 to 11,000 feet below the surface in order to get rich quick, and he'd risk a lot by tapping into the toxic and dangerous chemicals that exist at those depths.

That risk multiplies when combined with the state of our national infrastructure. The pipelines, railroads and shipping containers energy companies use to move this difficult-to-extract, explosive oil have fallen into disrepair. Without adequate federal safety precautions and spill contingency plans, city sustainability managers and companies involved in cleanup efforts face a difficult situation.

The human and environmental risk

There are 200,000 miles of pipelines crisscrossing North America, enough to circle the equator nearly eight times. Those pipelines are old, and they're supporting unprecedented pressure. In addition to their age, these pipelines bear the effects of extreme temperature shifts spurred by climate change and the weight of the Bakken crude and oil sands that flow through them.

The result is literally explosive. In the short span of 2014, we've already witnessed a pipeline explosion in Kentucky, another in North Dakota, two chemical spills in West Virginia related to coal processing and a third in North Carolina, as well as an oil spill in Oak Glenn, Ohio.

The pipelines are not the only problem. The United States has an aging rail system that desperately needs repair. Most railcars lack proper insulation, and the tracks weren't built to handle the volume of heavy and fast-moving traffic that has come with the current level of oil extraction. The communities along these tracks are understandably concerned.

A lack of enforcement

Despite repeated accidents, there has not been much effective action. Laws already are in place to address many of the related issues, but enforcement is not where it needs to be. After disasters occur, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is quick to reach the scene and wants to do the right thing, but is not beholden to the same transparency rules that govern other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration.

We see corporate lobbyists influencing the process of testing disaster sites and managing cleanups, but these companies do not serve the public interest. They're beholden to investors and stakeholders who benefit when the public has less information, not more.

Newer technologies for a cleaner future

City sustainability managers and companies involved in cleanup efforts must be at the forefront of change. In the face of aging, high-risk infrastructure along waterways and railways, these community leaders should demand greater transparency as to what kinds of chemicals are being used in energy extraction methods and dangers posed to human health. Moreover, when accidents do occur, the public has a right to know what testing methods and protocols are being used to determine if the drinking water is safe. During the recent West Virginia Freedom Industries chemical spill in the Elk River, this information was withheld from the public even after local residents continued to complain of headaches and a strange smell coming from the water days after the governor declared the water safe to drink.

One of the biggest obstacles to better information is the way we currently test water for contaminants. Communities throughout the country are relying on instantaneous water samples — collecting a jar full of surface water — to determine what's in the entire body of water. But this isn't how humans interact with water — we don't bathe for an instant, we don't drink for an instant and we don't cook for an instant. Water Defense has been on the ground collecting cumulative water samples using a technology I invented called OPFLEX, an open-celled foam technology that acts like alveoli in human lungs. It sits throughout the entire water column from floor to surface, absorbing contaminants over time while repelling water. It can used to test waters and assist in cleaning up spills.

Once we join together to demand greater transparency and safety protocols, we can begin to slow the horrible accidents stemming from fossil fuel extraction and transport.

Oil spill image by Narongsak Nagadhana via Shutterstock.