AP’s Yellow Estimate of Yellowstone River Oil Spill

by William Yeatman on July 3, 2011

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On Friday near midnight, a 12-inch pipeline operated by Exxon Mobile ruptured under the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana, releasing an as yet undetermined amount of crude oil into the river. Read news reports here, here, and here.

It seems to me that there is no shortage of juicy angles for journalists to work on this developing story: Exxon Mobil, a favorite target of the left, is the responsible party; oil is visible miles downstream; aquatic wildlife is endangered; 140 people living near the break in the pipeline were temporarily evacuated due to fumes and the risk of an explosion; and the Yellowstone River, like many in the region, is swelled with snow melt and rain, which has rendered difficult the cleanup. For the Associated Press, however, the story wasn’t juicy enough. Otherwise, the AP write-up would not have included this sensationalist paragraph:

Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Pam Malek said the pipe leaked an estimated 750 to 1,000 barrels of oil for about a half-hour before it was shut down. Other Exxon officials had estimated up to 42,000 gallons of crude oil escaped.

In fact, a barrel of crude oil is equal to 42 gallons, so “an estimated…1,000 barrels” is “42,000 gallons.” That is, the two sentences in the above paragraph have the same meaning. The only difference, of course, is that 42,000 is a much bigger number than 1,000. Presumably, this is why the AP reporter cited a spill estimate from “other Exxon officials,” in addition to the one provided by spokeswoman Pam Malek.

As we learned from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster last year, initial spill estimates can be very wrong. We could learn today that the amount spilled was much higher, or lower, than 1,000 barrels, a.k.a. 42,000 gallons. Nonetheless, the AP’s attempt to draw a distinction between two figures that represent the same amount appears to be a willful exaggeration in the worst tradition of yellow journalism.

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