America’s growing pipeline safety crisis

The fate of the Keystone XL pipeline — the project that’s become the face of fossil-fuel exploitation in the United States — remains very much up in the air. It’s still not 100 percent clear which way the Obama administration will go on the project, while some Republican candidates like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry say that — in the case the issue is still unresolved in January 2017 — they will approve the massive pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast on “Day One” of their administration.

Meanwhile, business and their lobbyists — now able to point to a spate of oil-by-rail accidents and fires — are ratcheting up the pressure by arguing the pipelines are the safest and most modern way to transport oil and natural gas. Indeed, the Keystone XL is just one of a number of proposed new pipelines that would criss-cross the United States, carrying the spoils of the continent’s fracking boom. Of course, what the pipeline advocates don’t tell you is that the federal agency charged with inspecting and regulating oil-and-gas pipelines — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is woefully undermanned and can inspect only a tiny fraction of the nation’s capacity every year.

The results are scores of pipeline failures every year — some nuisances, some catastrophic. Some of them are brief stories in a local newspaper, but others get national attention, like the pipeline rupture that sent a torrent of oil down a residential cul-de-sac in Mayflower, Ark., a couple of years ago. In the last two weeks, we’ve been tracking a horrendous situation in Santa Barbara, Calif., where a corroded pipeline belonging to Plains All-American ruptured and spilled 105,000 gallons of crude oil, much of it into the Pacific Ocean. Majestic sea birds and other creatures have been oiled and killed, and now tar balls are closing popular beaches in Southern California.

And it should come as a surprise to no one that this was an accident waiting to happen:

Nearly two decades ago, Plains All American Pipeline embarked on a buying spree across the United States and Canada, acquiring thousands of miles of aging pipeline.

The purchases turned Plains into one of North America’s biggest energy pipeline companies. But it also left the firm with a patchwork of pipes, some in need of crucial maintenance.

Mechanical failures on the company’s network have contributed to more than a dozen spills that have released nearly 2 million gallons of hazardous liquid in the U.S. and Canada since 2004. That does not include more than 100,000 gallons of oil spilled along the Santa Barbara County coast on May 19, about 20,000 gallons of which went into the Pacific Ocean, prompting a massive and ongoing cleanup.

The problem for Plains All-American goes much deeper than what happened in Santa Barbara, as the L.A. Times reveals:

Regulators have cited cracked joints, failed screws, faulty pins and an undersized storage tank as causes of previous spills that led to millions of dollars in fines against the company, according to court records and regulatory filings.

Plains, a publicly traded company that transports oil from wells to refineries, has a market value of $18.8 billion and operates roughly 18,000 miles of pipeline in North America.

“They bought a bunch of companies with assets of varying quality,” said Michael Wara, a geochemist and an associate professor of law at Stanford University who specializes in energy and environmental law. “When you do that, you may not always fully understand what you’re acquiring, and that creates risk.”

These pipeline risks are increasingly ones that America can’t afford. Pipelines — both current ones and proposed projects like the Keystone XL — cross some of the most sensitive rivers, beaches and aquifers in the nation. Projects that are not essential — again, like the Keystone XL, which would carry dirty Canadian tar sands fuels that would be mostly shipped aboard — should be rejected, and inspections and repairs of the existing pipelines must be dramatically increased. We need pressure from the public and the politicians to get this done, because Big Oil simply can’t and won’t regulate itself.

Read more about Plains All-American Pipeline’s history of spills from the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-oil-spill-plains-20150605-story.html#page=1

I make the case for curbing our dependence on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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