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Exxon's Yellowstone Oil Spill Response: Beware of Fuzzy Numbers

Exxon Mobil's (XOM) pipeline accident, which dumped up to 1,000 barrels of oil into Montana's Yellowstone River, already has the company scrambling to contain and cleanup the pristine wilderness area, meet regulatory demands and limit the damage to its image. Too bad that Exxon unnecessarily added to its own problems by releasing a vague timeline of its spill response that has fueled doubts about the company.

Initially, Exxon reps said it took "at most" a half hour to stop the flow of oil from the pipeline. Later, the company said it took only six minutes. And on Tuesday, Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing said in response a question from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer that it took 30 minutes to seal off all valves to stop the flow of crude. But recently released Department of Transportation documents show it took Exxon almost an hour to fully seal the pipeline.

The predictable reaction to Exxon's fuzzy timeline quickly followed. The company was accused of downplaying the incident or being less than honest about the timeline to somehow hide the amount of crude that spilled. The suspicion is hardly surprising. Last year, BP resisted early pressure to measure its own spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- a tactic to limit its liability.

Here's the unfortunate part. Exxon reported an accurate timeline to the DOT. It just failed to remain consistent when its company execs spoke publicly. This may seem like small potatoes compared to questions about the pipeline's integrity and spill cleanup. But transparency and consistency is imperative when a company is in crisis. And considering Exxon's history, it's critical the company not raise suspicion so early on in the game.

Clearly, Exxon realized what this snafu could turn into. The company opened its Wednesday afternoon media conference call with a detailed rundown of the timeline, why it took 49 minutes to completely stop all oil from draining into the river and an apology for the confusion. In short, six minutes after Exxon noticed a drop in pressure on the pipeline, it was shut down. The operations center in Houston then proceeded to shut off intermediate valves to avoid pressure build up and further problems. This 49-minute timeline is what was used to determine how much oil likely ended up in the Yellowstone River, which the company estimates is between 750 and 1,000 barrels of oil.

Photo of Yellowstone cleanup activities from Exxon Mobil
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