Despite High Profile Spills, Oil Pipelines Are Still Safer Than Other Options

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By Haley Zaremba, Oilprice.com

Last month, on April 4, the highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline had its first leak before it was even fully operational. The small leak spilled about 84 gallons of shale oil at a pump station in Spink County, South Dakota. The incident occurred just 100 miles south of Standing Rock, the now world-famous site of massive protests against the pipeline’s construction through Sioux lands.

Despite the high-profile protests, where hundreds of anti-pipeline demonstrators set up camps along the Missouri River, the news of last month’s spill did not become public until this week, in large part because minor spills of this nature are a very common occurrence. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources only issues a press release about a pipeline leak when it directly threatens drinking water, fisheries or public health.

News of the spill is particularly poignant in the context of the months-long, globally-broadcasted Standing Rock protests, which argued that a pipeline spill was not a matter of if, but when. This leak is just one of many that prove that the oil and gas industry and its federal regulators still have a long way to go in terms of making pipelines impervious to rampant technological failures and human error.

In fact, Energy Transfer Partners, the same company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, is also facing legal problems with a natural gas pipeline in Ohio that they say has sprung 18 different leaks, spilling 2 million gallons of non-toxic drilling lubricant into once-pristine wetlands. The most substantial spill covered 6.5 acres in a wetland along the Tuscarawas River 50 miles south of Akron, “coating wetland soils and vegetation with bentonite clay and bore-hole cuttings” according to the federal commission investigating the spill.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has halted any new horizontal drilling on the Ohio pipeline until Energy Transfer Partners is able to clean up the spill. The feds also ordered the company to double their number of environmental inspectors for the project. The company was already fined US$431,000 on May 4 in response to a series of Rover pipeline-related infractions throughout Ohio, a small amount compared to the leaked gas pipeline’s US$4.2 billion-dollar budget.

Environmentalists decry a lack of governmental regulation at the state and federal level on such projects, only responding to unsafe drilling and pipeline conditions after a major spill instead of taking precautionary measures. We’ve seen time and again the difficulties of maintaining millions of miles of aging pipelines. Over the last thirty years, nearly 9,000 significant pipeline-related incidents have occurred nationwide, according Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data, notwithstanding thousands of more minor spills like last month’s DAPL leak.

On the other side of the pipeline argument, many industry experts say that pipelines are actually the safest alternative for transporting fuel when compared to hauling fuel overland by tanker trucks or freight trains. John Stoody of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines said, in a statement to CityLab, “Environmental analysis comparing pipelines to rail finds pipelines will result in fewer incidents, barrels released, personal injuries, and greenhouse gas emissions.”

In 2013 the Manhattan Institute, one of the nation’s most influential conservative think-tanks, published a study that backs up this statement. They found that for transport of crude oil, road transportation had an annual accident rate of 19.95 incidents per billion ton miles, and rail transportation had 2.08 incidents. Comparatively, natural gas transmission had just 0.89 incidents per billion ton miles and hazardous liquid pipelines 0.58.

We can expect to hear these talking points quite a bit in the coming months, as President Trump and oil execs get ready to push for construction on the similarly controversial Keystone XL and other pipelines across the United States, including the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, Comanche Trail Pipeline, and the WAHA Header.

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