Protesters Say Pipelines Are Dangerous. Are They?

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Protestors take part in a national 'Day of Action' demonstration against the Dakota Access pipeline project on the University of Denver campus.

Leigh Paterson/Inside Energy

Protestors take part in a national 'Day of Action' demonstration against the Dakota Access pipeline project on the University of Denver campus.

Demonstrators protested all around the country in November, in opposition to a controversial crude oil pipeline, with chants like, “We stand with Standing Rock,” and, “Water is life.”

The Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe opposing the Dakota Access pipeline project on the ground in North Dakota, are worried that if there were an accident, the pipeline could contaminate their water.

How serious are pipeline-related risks? Well, for starters, there are around around 2.6 million miles of pipelines of varying sizes in the United States, quietly carrying everything from hazardous liquids like crude oil, to refined products like jet fuel, to natural gas. But because there is no one type of pipeline, there is no one type of risk.

According to data from federal regulators, there is actually a low probability of a pipeline accident. But when there is an accident, the impact can be huge. In 2010, a natural gas pipeline exploded near San Francisco International Airport, killing eight.  More recently, in October, a pipeline explosion in Alabama killed one worker, and injured 5 others.

Map: There have been 4,269 pipeline incidents since 2010; 64 of them involved fatal injuries

This map shows the incidents pipeline operators have reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, known as PHMSA, since 2010. The color indicates the type of pipeline – gas distribution; gas transmission and gathering; hazardous liquids, like crude oil. Large markers indicate incidents where people were killed. Mouse over or click on a marker to see more information about that incident.

Since 2010, 474 people have been injured, 100 people have been killed, and $3.5 billion of damage has occurred as a result of pipeline accidents, leaks and spills. On the map, you can see how the incident locations trace out the paths of some of the major pipelines that transect the U.S.

So, this risk is real. These injury and fatality numbers, however, have dropped over time.

“There have been some safety improvements that have reduced the number of fatalities and injuries but, overall, the trend line has started to go back the wrong direction,” said Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Weimer means that although fatalities and injuries are down, the number of what PHMSA defines as ‘significant incidents’ for pipelines overall are creeping up, along with mileage as operators build more pipeline. At least 125,000 miles of new pipeline have been built since 2010.

Weimer speculates that the pipeline build-out during the oil and gas boom meant work was perhaps done quickly instead of correctly at times. But he admits that he really doesn’t know exactly why numbers are going up.

“There isn’t one single cause of any of these pipelines that you can point at and say that’s what the problem is,” Weimer said.

As pipeline network expands, incidents are up and fatal injuries are down

This graph shows the number of injuries and fatalities by year, as well as the number of significant incidents:

Since 1996, significant incidents increased at an average of 0.75 per year – which isn’t much, given that the number of miles of pipeline also increased during that time period. PHMSA data shows 328 significant incidents last year. The top causes  were welding or equipment failure and corrosion.

There is another common problem: excavation damage.

“That’s just folks digging into the pipe, not even realizing it’s there,” said Chris Stockton, a spokesperson with the pipeline company Williams. Williams operates several long domestic pipelines, including one that runs from Texas to New York city.

In addition to these risks, there is the issue of a chronically underfunded and understaffed regulatory agency. According to PHMSA, the agency has 533 inspectors on its payroll. That works out to around one inspector for every 5,000 miles of pipe. A government audit in October found that that PHMSA is behind on implementing new rules. It has 41 mandates and recommendations related to pipeline safety that await rulemaking.

But on the ground, are pipelines actually safe?

“It is an interesting question because everyone has to judge risk on their own. We try not to tell people whether a pipeline is safe or not because safe to one person might be unsafe to another,” said Carl Weimer.

Inside Energy analysis of PHMSA data showed that, over the years, the risk of an accident has remained steady: roughly 1.2 incidents that included injury, death, substantial property damage or spillage, per 10,000 miles. That might not sound like a lot if you don’t live on top of a pipeline or get your water from a nearby source.

But it is exactly that tiny fraction, that rare accident, that the Standing Rock Sioux are worried about.

What’s Next:

  • Follow Inside Energy’s North Dakota reporter Amy Sisk (@amyrsisk) for updates on Dakota Access.
  • For more context on this headline-making infrastructure, check out Inside Energy’s reporting on ‘The Pipeline Network.’
  • Do you live near a pipeline? PHMSA maps it out by county.
  • There are alternatives to pipelines, such as rail transport. This study, by the International Energy Agency, found  pipelines spilled three times as much oil as rail shipments between 2004 and 2012. But a direct comparison is misleading: during that time period, 90% of the nation’s oil moved by pipeline.
  • Allen Wirfs-Brock

    Can you quantify, based on pipeline segment length, the yearly expected incident rate for the entire DA pipeline, the portion that spans North Dakota, and for the portion that spans tribal lands?

    • Jordan Wirfs-Brock

      Thanks for your question…it’s a good one 😉

      The total Dakota Access pipeline is about 1,200 miles, with about 360 miles in North Dakota. Our North Dakota reporter, Amy Sisk, says that we don’t actually know how many miles would cross tribal land.

      The rate we used in this story, 1.2 significant incidents per 10,000 miles, was calculated for *all* types of pipeline, including natural gas. For the purposes of answering your question, though, let’s calculate what the rate is for hazardous liquid pipelines, the category that includes crude oil. (Warning, this is going to be a back of the napkin calculation, not a full risk assessment or analysis!)

      In 2015, PHMS data (http://www.phmsa.dot.gov/pipeline/library/data-stats) shows that there were 207,975 miles of hazardous liquid pipeline, 181 significant incidents (defined as: injury or fatality, large amount of liquid spilled, large amount of property damage, or an explosion), and 462 overall incidents. That works out to a rate of 8.7 significant incidents per 10,000 miles, or 30.9 total incidents per 10,000 miles. But a year in time may not be the most accurate way to determine the incident rate, so let’s average it over the past 10 years. Doing that, we get 7.3 significant incidents or 28.0 total incidents per 10,000 miles (per year). In case it’s of interest, that’s also 0.30 barrels spilled per mile per year.

      So the risks work out to…

      3.4 incidents, 0.9 significant incidents, and 358 barrels spilled per year along the entire Dakota Access pipeline

      1 incident, 0.3 significant incidents, and 108 barrels spilled per year in North Dakota

      Some things to consider: This is based on the incident rates for *all* hazardous liquid pipelines. The rates may be different if you look at it by pipeline type or pipeline age (i.e., old and new pipelines may have different incident or spill rates).

      There are many ways to analyze pipeline data, and Inside Energy will be following up on this with more stories. Some questions we might try to look at are how the incident risk might vary with pipeline age, how many incidents are close/under waterways, and if there are specific pipelines that fail more than average. Do you have other ideas for what questions we could answer with the PHMSA data? Let us know!

      • Travlingypsy

        Glad you are reporting on this…I’d like to see a more humane take on what is going on. I don’t think the story is complete until we hear about the WATER PROTECTORS….not protestors. That is a good distinction. At least give them that much. It isn’t difficult to find out how much of the tribal land is being used and abused. It’s all over the internet not sure how or why Amy Sisk missed that.

        Admittedly, I just found your site and this is the first article I’ve read. We all need to stand up for these people whose land we stole. This is treaty land that is being used and everyone else is trespassing. It would be good to hear about the human damage and risk. Boots on the ground sort of reporting. How the oil companies are allowed to railroad people with respecting their rights. They have been told by the Army Corps of Engineers that the oil company did not get the proper permits to finish this last section. The oil company has said they are drilling anyway.

        Statistics are great but if you aren’t talking about how badly this whole thing is being handled then you are missing the story. 200 plus people have been hurt so far. They have a legal right to stage a prayer and stand up for their/our water. To not let them do that unconstitutional. The cops are militarized and paid by the oil companies. It is illegal for them to take these aggressive actions against these people.

        These human rights violations are a big part of the damage from oil companies. The fact that trump is an investor in this and other pipelines is more damage in the form of a ‘conflict of interest’. The fact that the people that live in an area of the pipeline have no say over what happens to their land, their town, their water, earth, air, etc, more damage. The oil companies get away with putting their pipes wherever they want with out concern or protection from the gov’t; more human damage. The fact that only the investors will make money off of this project and the land or water they ruin and tear apart have no consequence. We are used for their profits, damage to the integrity and psycho of a people. If we don’t want the pipeline in our town or state we have to fight, more human damage – money lost due to taking off of work to push back, sometimes for years before anything happens. The biggest tragedy is the people are never put first. We have to beg and play the victim in order for the powers to hear us, more human damage.

        How do we legally stop them from doing this? That would be a great part of this long story. Living in a Republic means the people have the power. That is more human damage….the people have no power. Please talk about the whole story and the real damage and how about a statistical analysis of this energy next to sustainable energy. This oil is a dinosaur. As Van Jones says; “it is dead energy”. It’s time has past and it needs to go away and be replaced with something better that we already know works. Corporations have more power than people…that is the biggest part of this whole story and many others. We need to know how to stop this. Tell us the whole truth.

        I’d love to see you, me, all of us stand up for the citizens, our water, our land and not for the oil companies. One leak is one too many. Obviously it’s a bad idea.

        Thank you.

        • Leigh Paterson

          Hey there,

          Thanks for passing along your thoughts! I was one of the reporters on this story but my colleague Amy Sisk has been covering the Dakota Access pipeline protests from her home base in Bismarck, North Dakota. She has done quite a bit of ‘boots on the ground’ reporting which you can check out here: http://insideenergy.org/series/protesting-the-pipeline

          I also invite you to submit any specific questions you have, related to pipelines or other energy issues, on our home page (insideenergy.org), using the ‘IE Questions’ box on the right.

          -Leigh Paterson

  • Russ Gorham

    Leigh and Jordan: I’m glad you are covering the issue, but I’m upset that you completely missed the point! Since the beginning, the issue has been about clean water, not the hazards to pipeline workers. The 2nd sentence in story says “The Standing Rock Sioux … are worried that if there were an accident, the pipeline could contaminate their water.” That’s true. Then everything that follows is about a thorough investigation on safety in regards to injuries and deaths due to accidents and explosions. What does that have to do with contamination? What does that have to do with slow leaks resulting in huge environmental impacts? The word “dangerous” is used in the title, but you have interpreted the dangers as violent accidents. It is easy for many of us to dismiss those injuries because we don’t work in the oil industry. I think the bigger concern is the potential danger of contamination to clean water and a healthy environment. I would really like to hear investigative reporting on the frequencies and impacts from oil spills and leaks. Thank you for covering the story and continuing the conversation.

    • Leigh Paterson

      Hi Russ,

      I was one of the reporters on this piece. I appreciate you taking the time to give us some feedback. The story was meant to be a primer on pipeline safety issues and as you can see in the lines below the orange graph, all of the data on ‘significant incidents’ includes monetary damages, liquid releases and fires, in addition to injuries and fatalities. It is also important to note that those last two risks are not isolated to workers, as mentioned in the examples at the beginning of the post. However, you are correct in pointing out that the Standing Rock Sioux are primarily worried about spills. We are digging into that data now and plan to publish a story in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

      -Leigh

      • Russ Gorham

        Thank you. I look forward to more stories.