On July 21, Gov. Schweitzer was in Fort Hood, Texas, where he suggested by phone to a Montana reporter that ExxonMobil was concealing the presence of “heavy” crude in its Yellowstone Pipeline.
“How could we ever sign off on a cleanup if we don’t know what we’re cleaning up?” asked the governor, accusing the company outright of impeding the cleanup effort.
The next morning, a prominently placed headline in the Billings Gazette read, “ExxonMobil not cooperating, Schweitzer says.”
There was only one problem: The governor’s allegations weren’t true.
We know this because the day after the report was published the governor’s charges were contradicted by none other than members of his own administration.
“Looks like normal crude oil,” concluded the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, after analyzing crude oil samples pulled from the pipeline.
Beyond confirming ExxonMobil’s initial claim, this abject display of blatant contradiction illustrates a troubling habit the governor has of shooting from the hip cowboy-style. His statements often have the desired effect of procuring headlines, but far too often, they are proven inaccurate or misleading.
While the governor’s pattern of posturing to score political points hardly sets him apart from other politicians, Montanans deserve more in a disaster response situation than a steady stream of misinformation and confusion-creating inaccuracies.
The governor’s Fort Hood flub was neither his first, nor his last since the Silvertip Pipeline inexplicably ruptured one month ago.
Almost immediately after the spill was first reported, the governor was so certain that oil had traveled downstream throughout eastern Montana and into North Dakota, that he went on national TV and offered condescendingly to buy a “$2 calculator” for anyone who disagreed with his calculations. Shortly thereafter, the governor’s own administration determined that no oil had reached North Dakota, and later, state officials disproved reports that oil had been found near Terry.
On another occasion, the governor cautioned that benzene vapors from the oil could pose health hazards to residents and livestock. Later that day, Schweitzer was again contradicted by his own administration when DEQ announced that any benzene had long evaporated and measurements taken at cleanup sites detected no vapors.
In times of crisis, lack of information often leads to confusion, frustration and panic. It’s important that leaders be highly visible and engaged in terms of disseminating information frequently, but it’s equally important that the information they put out be accurate.
Gov. Schweitzer is peerless at understanding the value of visibility. As for the premium he places on accuracy, that’s a different story.
(Republican Ed Walker represents Senate District 29, which runs along the Yellowstone River from Laurel to Billings.)