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Map of pipeline incidents across the US

Pipeline Incidents Continue to Impact Residents

Pipelines play a major role in the oil and gas extraction industry, allowing for the transport of hydrocarbons from well sites to a variety of infrastructure, including processing plants, petrochemical facilities, power generation plants, and ultimately consumers. There are more than 2.7 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, or more than 11 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

With all of this infrastructure in place, pipelines are inevitably routed close to homes, schools, and other culturally or ecologically important locations. But how safe are pipelines, really? While they are typically buried underground and out of sight, many residents are concerned about the constant passage of volatile materials through these pipes in close proximity to these areas, with persistent but often unstated possibility that something might go wrong some day.

Safety talking points

In an attempt to assuage these fears, industry representatives and regulators tend to throw around variants of the word “safe” quite a bit:

Pipelines are the safest and most reliable means of transporting the nation’s energy products.
— Keith Coyle, Marcellus Shale Coalition

Although pipelines exist in all fifty states, most of us are unaware that this vast network even exists. This is due to the strong safety record of pipelines and the fact that most of them are located underground. Installing pipelines underground protects them from damage and helps protect our communities as well.
— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country.
Pipeline 101

Knowing how important pipelines are to everyday living is a big reason why we as pipeline operators strive to keep them safe. Pipelines themselves are one of the safest ways to transport energy with a barrel of crude oil or petroleum product reaching its destination safely by pipeline 99.999% of the time.
American Petroleum Institute

But are pipelines really safe?

Given these talking points, the general public can be excused for being under the impression that pipelines are no big deal. However, PHMSA keeps records on pipeline incidents in the US, and the cumulative impact of these events is staggering. These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers),
  2. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets), and
  3. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).

Below in Table 1 is a summary of pipeline incident data from 2010 through mid-November of this year. Of note: Some details from recent events are still pending, and are therefore not yet reflected in these reports.

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018

Report Incidents Injuries Fatalities Evacuees Fires Explosions Damages ($)
Gas Distribution 934 473 92 18,467 576 226 381,705,567
Gas Transmission & Gathering 1,069 99 24 8,614 121 51 1,107,988,837
Hazardous Liquids 3,509 24 10 2,471 111 14 2,606,014,109
Totals 5,512 596 126 29,552 808 291 4,095,708,513

Based on this data, on average each day in the US 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported (a number in line with our previous analyses), requiring 9 people to be evacuated, and causing almost $1.3 million in property damage. A pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents result in an injury every 5 days, on average, and a fatality every 26 days.

Data shortcomings

While the PHMSA datasets are extremely thorough, they do have some limitations. Unfortunately, in some cases, these limitations tend to minimize our understanding of the true impacts. A notable recent example is a series of explosions and fires on September 13, 2018 in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. Cumulatively, these incidents resulted in the death of a young man and the injuries to 25 other people. There were 60-80 structure fires, according to early reports, as gas distribution lines became over-pressurized.

The preliminary PHMSA report lists all of these Massachusetts fires as a single event, so it is counted as one fire and one explosion in Table 1. As of the November 14 download of the data, property damage has not been calculated, and is listed as $0. The number of evacuees in the report also stands at zero. This serves as a reminder that analysis of the oil and gas industry can only be as good as the available data, and relying on operators to accurately self-report the full extent of the impacts is a somewhat dubious practice.



View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work
This map shows pipeline incidents in the US from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018. Source: PHMSA. One record without coordinates was discarded, and 10 records had missing decimal points or negative (-) signs added to the longitude values. A few obvious errors remain, such as a 2012 incident near Winnipeg that should be in Texas, but we are not in a position to guess at the correct latitude and longitude values for each of the 5,512 incidents.

Another recent incident occurred in Center Township, a small community in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near Aliquippa on September 10, 2018. According to the PHMSA Gas Transmission & Gathering report, this incident on the brand new Revolution gathering line caused over $7 million in damage, destroying a house and multiple vehicles, and required 49 people to evacuate. The incident was indicated as a fire, but not an explosion. However, reporting by local media station WPXI quoted this description from a neighbor:

A major explosion, I thought it was a plane crash honestly. My wife and I jumped out of bed and it was just like a light. It looked like daylight. It was a ball of flame like I’ve never seen before.

From the standpoint of the data, this error is not particularly egregious. On the other hand, it does serve to falsely represent the overall safety of the system, at least if we consider explosions to be more hazardous than fires.

Big picture findings

Comparing the three reports against one another, we can see that the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%) are caused by hazardous liquids pipelines, even though the liquids account for less than 8% of the total mileage of the network. In all of the other categories, however, gas distribution lines account for more than half of the cumulative damage, including injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%). This is perhaps due to the vast network (more than 2.2 million miles) of gas distribution mains and service lines, as well as their nature of taking these hazardous products directly into populated areas. Comparatively, transmission and hazardous liquids lines ostensibly attempt to avoid those locations.

Is the age of the pipeline a factor in incidents?

Among the available attributes in the incident datasets is a field indicating the year the pipeline was installed. While this data point is not always completed, there is enough of a sample size to look for trends in the data. We determined the age of the pipe by subtracting the year the pipe was installed from the year of the incident, eliminating nonsensical values that were created when the pipeline age was not provided. In the following section, we will look at two tables for each of the three reports. The first table shows the cause of the failure compared to the average age, and the second breaks down results by the content that the pipe was carrying. We’ll also include a histogram of the pipe age, so we can get a sense of how representative the average age actually is within the sample.

A. Gas distribution

Each table shows some fluctuation in the average age of pipeline incidents depending on other variables, although the variation in the product contained in the pipe (Table 3) are minor, and may be due to relatively small sample sizes in some of the categories. When examining the nature of the failure in relation to the age of the pipe (Table 2), it does make sense that incidents involving corrosion would be more likely to afflict older pipelines, (although again, the number of incidents in this category is relatively small). On average, distribution pipeline incidents occur on pipes that are 33 years old.

When we look at the histogram (Figure 1) for the overall distribution of the age of the pipeline, we see that those in the first bin, representing routes under 10 years of age, are actually the most frequent. In fact, the overall trend, excepting those in the 40 t0 50 year old bin, is that the older the pipeline, the fewer the number of incidents. This may reflect the massive scale of pipeline construction in recent decades, or perhaps pipeline safety protocol has regressed over time.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 1. Age of pipeline histogram for gas distribution line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

B. Gas Transmission & Gathering

Transmission & Gathering line incidents occur on pipelines routes that are, on average, five years older than their distribution counterparts. Corrosion, natural force damage, and material failures on pipes and welds occur on pipelines with an average age above the overall mean, while excavation and “other outside force” incidents tend to occur on newer pipes (Table 4). The latter category would include things like being struck by vehicles, damaged in wildfires, or vandalism. The contents of the pipe does not seem to have any significant correlation with the age of the pipe when we take sample size into consideration (Table 5).

The histogram (Figure 2) for the age of pipes on transmission & gathering line incidents below shows a more normal distribution, with the noticeable exception of the first bin (0 to 10 years old) ranking second in frequency to the fifth bin (40 to 50 years old).

It is worth mentioning that, “PHMSA estimates that only about 5% of gas gathering pipelines are currently subject to PHMSA pipeline safety regulations.” My correspondence with the agency verified that the remainder is not factored into their pipeline mileage or incident reports in any fashion. Therefore, we should not consider the PHMSA data to completely represent the extent of the gathering line network or incidents that occur on those routes.

Pipeline incidents chart

Figure 2. Age of pipeline histogram for transmission & gathering line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

C. Hazardous Liquids

The average incident on hazardous liquid lines occurs on pipelines that are 27 years old, which is 6 years younger than for distribution incidents, and 11 years younger than their transmission & gathering counterparts. This appears to be heavily skewed by the equipment failure and incorrect operation categories, both of which occur on pipes averaging 15 years old, and both with substantial numbers of incidents. On the other hand, excavation damage, corrosion, and material/weld failures tend to occur on pipes that are at least 40 years old (Table 6).

In terms of content, pipelines carrying carbon dioxide happen on pipes that average just 11 years old, although there are not enough of these incidents to account for the overall departure from the other two datasets (Table 7).

The overall shape of the histogram (Figure 3) is similar to that of transmission & gathering line incidents, except that the first bin (0 to 10 years old) is by far the most frequent, with more than 3 and a half times as many incidents as the next closest bin (4o to 50 years old). Operators of new hazardous liquid routes are failing at an alarming rate. In descending order, these incidents are blamed on equipment failure (61%), incorrect operation (21%), and corrosion (7%), followed by smaller amounts in other categories. The data indicate that pipelines installed in previous decades were not subject to this degree of failure.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 3. Age of pipeline histogram for hazardous liquid line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

Conclusions

When evaluating quotes, like those listed above, that portray pipelines as a safe way of transporting hydrocarbons, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are saying.

Are pipelines the safest way of transporting our nation’s energy products? This presupposes that our energy must be met with liquid or gaseous fossil fuels. Certainly, crude shipments by rail and other modes of transport are also concerning, but movements of solar panels and wind turbines are far less risky.

Does the industry have the “strong safety record” that PHMSA proclaims? Here, we have to grapple with the fact that the word “safety” is inherently subjective, and the agency’s own data could certainly argue that the industry is falling short of reasonable safety benchmarks.

And what about the claim that barrels of oil or petroleum products reach their destination “99.999% of the time? First, it’s worth noting that this claim excludes gas pipelines, which account for 92% of the pipelines, even before considering that PHMSA only has records on about 5% of gas gathering lines in their pipeline mileage calculations. But more to the point, while a 99.999% success rate sounds fantastic, in this context, it isn’t good enough, as this means that one barrel in every 100,000 will spill.

For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline has a daily capacity of 470,000 barrels per day (bpd). In an average year, we can expect 1,715 barrels (72,030 gallons) to fail to reach its destination, and indeed, there are numerous spills reported in the course of routine operation on the route. The 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline leaked 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) late last year in South Dakota, or what we might expect from four and a half years of normal operation, given the o.001% failure rate. In all, PHMSA’s hazardous liquid report lists 712,763 barrels (29.9 million gallons) were unintentionally released, while an additional 328,074 barrels (13.8 million gallons) were intentionally released in this time period. Of this, 284,887 barrels (12 million gallons) were recovered, meaning 755,950 barrels (31.7 million gallons) were not.

Beyond that, we must wonder whether the recent spate of pipeline incidents in new routes is a trend that can be corrected. Between the three reports, 1,283 out of the 3,853 (32%) incidents occurred in pipelines that were 10 years old or younger (where the year the pipeline’s age is known). A large number of these incidents are unforced errors, due to poor quality equipment or operator error.

One wonders why regulators are allowing such shoddy workmanship to repeatedly occur on their watch.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

A Bird’s Eye View of Pipeline Oppositions

By Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

New York State is not the only area where opposition to fracking and its related activities is emerging. A 108-mile proposed PennEast pipeline between Wilkes-Barre, PA and Mercer County, New Jersey is facing municipal movements against its construction, as well. The 36-inch diameter pipeline will likely carry 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. According to some sources, this proposed pipeline is the only one in NJ that is not in compliance with the state’s standard of co-locating new pipelines with an existing right-of-way.1

PennEast Pipeline Oppositions

Below is a dynamic, clickable map of said opposition by FracTracker’s Karen Edelstein, as well as documentation associated with each municipality’s current stance:


Click here to view map and legend fullscreen.

Additional Projects and Pushback

In Ohio, many communities are working on similar projects to prevent over 40,000 miles of proposed pipelines according to recent news reports.

And in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, municipalities are working to ban, reroute, or regulate heavily the Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline (opposition map shown below):

MA Opposition Map

Northeast Energy Direct Proposed Pipeline Paths and Opposition Resolutions in MA & NH

Why is this conversation important?

Participation in government is a beneficial practice for citizens and helps to inform our regulatory agencies on what people want and need. This surge in opposition against oil and gas activity such as pipelines or well pads near schools highlights a broader question, however:

If not pipelines, what is the least risky form of oil and gas transportation?

Oil and gas-related products are typically transported in one of four ways: Truck, Train, Barge, or Pipeline.

Truck-Spill

Drilling mud spill from truck accident

Megantic-Train

Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment

Barge-Sand

Using a barge to transport frac sand

Pipeline-Construction

Gas pipeline construction in PA forest

Trucks are arguably the most risky and environmentally costly form of transport, with spills and wrecks documented in many communities. Because most of these well pads are being built in remote areas, truck transport is not likely to disappear anytime soon, however.

Transport by rail is another popular method, albeit strewn with incidents. Several, major oil train explosions and derailments, such as the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013, have brought this issue to the public’s attention recently.

Moving oil and gas products by barge is a different mode that has been received with some public concern. While the chance of an incident occurring could be lower than by rail or truck, using barges to move oil and gas products still has its own risks; if a barge fails, millions of people’s drinking water could potentially be put at risk, as highlighted by the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in WV.

So we are left with pipelines – the often-preferred transport mechanism by industry. Pipelines, too, bring with them explosion and leak potential, but at a smaller level according to some sources.2 Property rights, forest loss and fragmentation, sediment discharge into waterways,  and the potential introduction of invasive species are but a few examples of the other concerns related to pipeline construction. Alas, none of the modes of transport are without risks or controversy.

Footnotes

  1. Colocation refers to the practice of constructing two projects – such as pipelines – in close proximity to each other. Colocation typically reduces the amount of land and resources that are needed.
  2. While some cite pipelines as relatively safe, incidents do occur quite often: ~1.6 incidents per day.
Clearing land for shale gas pipeline in PA

Resistance Mounts to Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline Across MA and NH

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator

As the pressure to move domestic natural gas to market from sources in Pennsylvania and beyond, residents in Massachusetts have been learning about a planned project that would cross the northern portion of the state.

Gas infrastructure build-out on the radar

The proposed Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline Expansion, known as the “Berkshire Pipeline,” or more recently as “Northeast Energy Direct,” would link existing pipeline infrastructure near the New York-Massachusetts border and Dracut, MA, north of Boston. TX-based Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. says that the 250-mile-long, 36-inch diameter pipeline construction would temporarily create about 3000 jobs, and deliver upwards of 2.2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas to the northeastern United States. Along the course of the proposed pipeline, 50 miles of the run would use existing Tennessee Gas Pipeline rights-of-way. Nevertheless, 129 miles of the new pipeline would be located in “greenfield” areas: locations that had previously not seen disruption by pipeline infrastructure. If approved, construction would begin in April 2017, with a targeted completion date of November 2018.

In addition to the main pipeline, the project would also include meter stations, at least two new compressor stations in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire, and modifications to existing pipeline infrastructure. Part of a growing web of pipelines that are moving Marcellus Shale and other gas across the continent, this project would have further connections to the Spectra Energy’s Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline that goes through Maine to the Canadian Maritime provinces, to terminals on the Atlantic coast. In addition, six lateral lines off the main pipeline include:

  • Nashua Lateral (Pepperell, MA into Hollis, NH)
  • Worcester Lateral
  • Pittsfield Lateral
  • Haverhill Lateral
  • Fitchburg Lateral Extension
  • Lynnfield Lateral

Municipalities React, Resistance Mounts

The plan was announced in late January 2014. Despite the endorsements of governors in six states in the Northeast to increase the region’s supply of natural gas, more than three dozen Massachusetts towns in the path of the pipeline have passed resolutions opposing the project (map below). After the December 8, 2014 release of a substantially revised route that would run 71 miles of the pipeline through New Hampshire rather than northern Massachusetts, Granite State municipalities have also raised their voices in opposition. Residents have cited concerns about the accidental releases of gas or chemicals used in during hydraulic fracturing in general, as well as the direct impacts that the pipeline would have on sensitive wetlands, conservation lands, state parks, private properties, and other critical habitats in Massachusetts, including crossing under or over the Connecticut River. We’ve also included point locations of federally designated National Wetlands Inventory sites on or adjacent to the current and newly-described pipeline routes, as well as other environmental assets such as waterways, lakes, state parks and forest lands.

Proposed Pipeline Paths and Opposition Resolutions


For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.

Currently, approximately 37% of residents contacted by Tennessee Gas for the pipeline rights-of-way have agreed to surveys of their lands. Massachusetts towns likely to be in the path of the pipeline include Richmond, Lenox, Pittsfield, and Dalton. In addition, Hancock, Hinsdale, Peru, Savoy, Stockbridge, Washington, West Stockbridge and Windsor counties are expected to be in the path.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 50% of New England’s electric power supply comes from natural gas, with a mere 9.3% sourced from renewable resources. Opponents of the project, such as the citizen group No Fracked Gas in Mass, are pushing for more resources and policy-planning to focus on alternative, renewable energy, rather than enhancing fossil fuel dependencies.

Additional concern has come from the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition (MLTC). MLTC sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick expressing their alarm that while Tennessee Gas has asserted that they will be using existing gas pipeline rights-of-way, landowners across the northern tier of Massachusetts have received letters from the gas company asking for permission to use their land. Were the pipeline to go this route, MLTC says, it would also run directly through public- and privately-owned stretches of conservation land.

In early August 2014, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick indicated to opponents of the pipeline his growing skepticism about the plan. A few days later, the New England States Committee on Electricity filed for an extension of a schedule looking at a proposal that would levy new tariffs on electric customers in order to finance projects such as this pipeline.

Additional Resources

NOTE: This article was updated on December 27, 2014, to include information about the revised pipeline route that we were not aware of when this article was originally released earlier in the month.

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