Some Facts Regarding the Safety of Oil and Gas Pipelines

(3BL Media/Justmeans) —Within the next few days, the US Army Corps of Engineers will grant an easement allowing Energy Transfer Partners to move forward with the controversial and much-opposed Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). President Trump has signed the order. Opponents have shifted their tactics to pressuring the banks financing the project, but it might be too late, as binding contracts have already been signed. Meanwhile, protestors have pledged mass resistance. If the project moves forward, it will be against environmental prudence, good judgment, or any concern for social justice. Like many decisions being made these days, facts seem to have little bearing on their outcome.

The fact is, these pipelines pose a considerable threat, to people, water supplies and the environment, not to mention the cultural impacts being delivered, yet again, to this country’s first inhabitants. In return for the risks, the benefits are small by comparison, with the exception of the considerable profits funneled to a small number of investors

The company behind DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, currently manages some 62,500 miles of natural gas pipelines, and they are planning quite a few more. Just after election day, Sunoco Logistics, which is also involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline agreed to acquire ETP, for a reported $21 billion.

An environmental advocacy group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LBB) held a conference call last week in opposition to a 162-mile long Bayou Bridge pipeline being planned by the two companies that would connect refineries with export facilities on the Gulf coast. Note that despite the rhetoric about energy independence, this pipeline will be used for shipping American oil and gas overseas.

The group has issued a report describing the number of pipeline accidents by these companies in the 2015-16 time frame, and challenging the claim that pipelines are safer than other methods of transporting oil, such as truck, rail, and ship. According to the report, which specifically focuses on Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Sunoco Logistics, there were a total of 69 accidents reported, 35 of which, or just over half, involved pipelines. Only two of the accidents involved mobile transfers, the rest being from either onshore facilities or storage tanks. All of the accidents involved spillage of gas or oil. More oil was released from pipeline spills than all other types combined. More than half a million gallons are listed as spilled, though the number is surely higher, as many of the individual accident reports said that the amount released was unknown.

The report was compiled using data from the Coast Guard’s National Response Center for industrial accidents.

As Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the LBB pointed out, that’s three accidents involving oil or gas discharge per month, from these two companies alone. Imagine: if airlines had three accidents per month, how many people do you think would fly?

But more important is the harm that these pipelines are causing the drinking water and the environment, all while helping to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. Four rivers have been contaminated by ETP spills during the study period, three of which—the Delaware, Schuykill, and Red are sources of drinking water. The proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline, will cross six bodies of water, two of which supply drinking water to local populations.

Storms and heavy rains are listed as the cause of the worst accidents, either due to increased water levels, or the increased stress that the storm conditions put on ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure. There is a further irony in that the fossil fuels being carried by these pipelines will further exacerbate the frequency and severity of heavy rains and storms as they are burned. Lax oversight is also cited as a contributor.

The Dakota Access pipeline will pass under the Missouri River. If the pipe should rupture there, it would be an environmental catastrophe. Large spills are not uncommon.  The Enbridge Energy pipeline dumped nearly 850,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and in 2013 a Tesoro Logistics pipeline in North Dakota spilled 865,000 gallons. The Enbridge cleanup cost over a billion dollars. Consider the fact that one drop of oil can make a liter of water undrinkable. One quart can contaminate 250,000 gallons.

When ProPublica examined the state of the country’s 2.5 million miles of pipelines back in 2012, they found that more than half of them were over 50 years old, then.

While transporting oil and gas, the pipeline requires relatively few workers, though the construction can often provide several thousand temporary jobs.

It’s worth asking the question, considering the fact that our economy is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, both in response to an urgent planetary threat as well as through unrelenting market forces—how many more of these pipelines do we actually need? Why aren’t the funds being used to upgrade and ensure the integrity of the existing pipeline network? If it’s not commercially viable to maintain these pipelines once they’ve been installed, perhaps that should be a consideration before we allow more of them to be implanted into the ground upon which we all depend.

Note: Just as this story was going to press, news came in of a pipeline fire at a Phillips 66 facility in Paradis, Louisiana.

Image credit: iStock