With the record-breaking rains come record-breaking floods, signaling devastation for local officials, residents, and… pipeline operators.
In June, construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia was suspended after heavy rainfall made it difficult for construction crews to control erosion. A landslide caused an explosion on the Leach Xpress Pipeline in West Virginia. The pipeline was built on a steep slope, and the weather made for challenging conditions to remediate the blast.
Then came the explosion of the Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County just this week on September 10th. Fire from the blast destroyed a house, a barn, two garages, several vehicles, six high tension electric towers, and shut down a section of a highway. Thankfully, residents were able evacuate their homes in time and no injuries were reported.
While the explosion is still under investigation, the cause of the explosion is believed to be a landslide, which occurred following days of heavy rain.
The burnt hillside near the site of the Revolution Pipeline explosion. Photo courtesy of Darrell Sapp, Post Gazette
How rain affects pipelines
Heavy rain can cause the ground to shift and swell, triggering devastating landslides, damaging pipelines, and creating leaks. Flooding can also make it difficult for crews to locate sites of leaks and repair pipelines.
Storms cause problems during pipeline construction, as well. Work areas and trenches can alter the flow of floodwaters and spill water onto farmland or backyards. At drilling sites, rain water can carry spills of bentonite, a drilling mud, into waterways.
Still, pipeline operators continue to plan and build along steep slopes, landslide prone areas, and through floodways and waterways. For instance, the route of Shell’s proposed Falcon Pipeline, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, passes through many areas that are crucial for managing heavy rains.
Risks along the Falcon route
As highlighted by a recent Environmental Health News piece to which we contributed, Falcon’s route passes through 25 landslide prone areas, a few of which are in residential neighborhoods. In fact, one landslide-prone portion of the pipeline is just 345 feet from a home.
In Beaver County alone, the pipeline route passes through 21,910 square feetof streams, 455,519 square feetof floodway, and 60,398 square feetof wetland:
Map of the Falcon Pipeline’s route through Beaver County, with locations Shell has identified as prone to landslides.
What can be done to prevent pipeline leaks, explosions, and spills?
Along the Texas Gulf Coast, robust plans are in the works to protect oil and gas infrastructure. In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey suspended a large portion of oil and gas operations in Texas. Now, the state has a $12 billion publicly-funded plan to build a barrier along the coast. The 60-mile-long structure would consist of seawalls, earthen barriers, floating gates, and steel levees. It will protect homes and ecosystems, as well as one of the world’s largest sites of petrochemical activity.
In July, the state fast-tracked $3.9 billion for three storm barriers around oil facilities. The industry is also moving inland to the Ohio River Valley, where it intends to build a petrochemical hub away from hurricane risk.
Herein lies the irony of the situation: The oil and gas industry is seeking refuge from the problems it is worsening.
Weather events are intensified by rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures. Scientists have reached a consensus on what’s causing these rises: increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane), released by burning fossil fuels. Protecting oil and gas infrastructure will allow the industry to continue polluting, thereby amplifying the problem.
In the short term, I suggest better protection of floodplains and waterways to keep residents and the environment safe. Accounting for frequent, heavy rains will help pipeline operators develop better erosion and sediment control plans. More protections for landslide prone areas near homes could save human and animal lives.
However, continuing to spend time, resources, and money to protect infrastructure from problems that the fossil fuel industry is exacerbating isn’t logical. Renewable energy will slow the effects of climate change that intensify weather events. Resources such as solar and wind also come with significantly less risk of explosion. Let’s be logical, now.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Shell-Pipeline-Violations-Feature.jpg400900Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2018-09-13 16:22:392020-03-11 13:46:31Heavy Rains and Risks to Pipelines
When people think about oil and gas extraction in Pennsylvania, they think about the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the state. It makes sense, because that’s where the process starts. However, while oil and other liquids can be shipped in tanker trucks, all of the producing gas wells in the state – whether they are small conventional wells or the giants of the Marcellus and Utica – must be connected by a network of pipelines.
Moving hydrocarbons from the well to processing facilities to power plants and residential customers all occurs within this giant midstream system, and the cumulative impact that pipelines have on the state is formidable. Let’s take a closer look at where the oil and gas pipelines are located in PA, their safety records, and major data gaps. Additionally, we’ve made available a detailed, interactive map of Pennsylvania pipelines and other important features such as water crossings.
Pipeline routes are everywhere in Pennsylvania
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 92,407 miles of pipelines carrying natural gas and liquid petroleum products in Pennsylvania in 2017. That distance is equivalent to 151 round trips between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or more than three trips around the globe at the equator. This figure includes 78,022 miles of distribution lines (which takes gas from public utilities to consumers), 10,168 miles of transmission lines (which move gas between various processing facilities), 3,111 miles of petroleum liquid routes, and 1,105 miles of natural gas gathering lines (which take the gas from wells to midstream processing facilities).
Of note – The last category’s estimate is almost certainly a drastic underestimation. As of June 7th, there were 3,781 unconventional well pads in Pennsylvania, according the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and all of the pads need to be connected to gathering lines. A 2014 report by the Nature Conservancy estimates that 19 acres of land are cleared for each well pad, which would work out to 3.1 miles of gathering lines for a typical 50-foot right-of-way. Multiplied out, 3,781 wells pads would require a total of 11,721 miles of gathering lines – well over PHMSA’s estimate of a 1,105 miles (See Table 1 for estimate comparisons).
Table 1. Varying estimates of gathering lines in Pennsylvania.*
Unconventional Well Pads
Average Gathering Line Length (Miles)
Statewide Total Estimated Miles
*Estimates based on Nature Conservancy and Bradford County data are based on calculating the average length of segments, then multiplying by the number of well pads in the state to find the statewide total. The PHMSA estimate was calculated in reverse, by dividing the purported total of gathering lines by the number of well pads to find the average mileage.
Figure 1: Location of gathering lines (2014) and oil and gas wells (2018) in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Note the pockets of newer wells that are not connected to the older gathering line network.
In 2014, the FracTracker Alliance digitized a published map of gathering lines in Bradford County, allowing us to analyze the data spatially (Figure 2). These efforts yield similar results, with gathering lines averaging 3.5 miles in length. Not counting segments of transmission lines included in the data, such as Stagecoach, Sunoco, and Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline, there were 1,003 miles of gas gathering lines just in Bradford County in 2014.
Almost all of this data is based only on unconventional oil and gas activity, and therefore ignores the more than 96,000 conventional oil and gas (O&G) wells active in the state. We do not have a reasonable estimate on the average length of gathering line segments are for this network. It is reasonable to assume that they tend to be shorter, as conventional wells are often closer together than unconventional well pads, but they must still network across vast portions of the state.
Table 2. Estimated length of gathering lines for conventional wells in Pennsylvania by variable average lengths
Average Length (Miles)
If the average gathering line for conventional wells in Pennsylvania is at least 1 mile in length, then the total mileage of gathering lines would exceed all other types of gas and petroleum pipelines in the state. Conversely, for the PHMSA figure of 1,105 miles to be accurate, the average gathering line for all conventional wells and unconventional well pads in Pennsylvania would be 0.011 miles, or only about 58 feet long.
Pipelines are dangerous
As pipelines impact residents in many ways, there are numerous reason why communities should try to understand their impacts – including basic planning, property rights, sediment runoff into streams, to name a few. Perhaps the most significant reason, however, is the potential for harmful incidents to occur, which are more common than anyone would like to think (See Table 3). Some of these incidents are quite serious, too.
Table 3. Nationwide pipeline incidents statistics from PHMSA from January 1, 2010 through July 13, 2018
Gas Transmission / Gathering
As of the July 13, 2018 download date, the PHMSA report covers 3,116 days.
Incidents Per Day
This means that nationally per day there are 1.7 pipeline incidents, almost 9 people evacuated, and $1,272,704 in damages, including the loss of released hydrocarbons.
On average, there is a fatality every 25 days, an injury every six days, and an explosion every 11 days. The location of those explosions obviously has a lot to do with the casualty count and aggregate property damage.
How do Pennsylvania pipelines hold up? As one might expect from a state with so many pipelines, Pennsylvania’s share of these incidents are significant (See Table 4).
Table 4. Pennsylvania pipeline incidents statistics from PHMSA from January 1, 2010 through July 13, 2018
Gas Transmission / Gathering
Within Pennsylvania, an incident is reported to PHMSA every 29 days, an injury or fatality can be expected every 107 days, and the daily average of property damage is $21,480.
The issue with under-reported gathering lines notwithstanding, PHMSA lists Pennsylvania with 92,407 miles of combined gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, which is roughly 3.3% of the nationwide total, and there is no reason to believe that PHMSA’s issue with accounting for gathering lines is unique to the Keystone State.
Just 2% of the total number of incidents are in Pennsylvania. In terms of impacts, however, the state has seen more than its fair share – with 6.4% of fatalities, 3.8% of injuries, 5.3% of explosions, and 3.9% of evacuations. Property damage in Pennsylvania accounts for just 1.7% of the national total, making it the only category examined above for which its share of impacts is less than expected, based on total pipeline miles.
Pipeline location data not widely available
Pipeline data is published from a variety of public agencies, although almost none of it is really accessible or accurate.
For example the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) publishes a number of energy-related datasets. While they do not publish gas pipelines, they do have a 2012 dataset of natural gas liquid routes, which is a significant portion of the hazardous liquid inventory. From an analytical point of view, however, this dataset is essentially worthless. Many of these pipelines are so generalized that they don’t make a single bend for multiple counties, and the actual location of the routes can be miles from where the data are represented. Communities cannot use this as a tool to better understand how pipelines interact with places that are important to them, like schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods. The dataset is also incomplete – the original Mariner East natural gas pipeline, which has been around for decades, isn’t even included in the dataset.
Figure 2: This text appears to viewers of PHMSA’s public pipeline viewer.
Another data source is PHMSA’s National Pipeline Mapping System Public Viewer. While this source is rich in content, it has several intentional limitations that thwart the ability of the public to accurately analyze the pipeline network and understand potential impacts:
Data can only be accessed one county at a time, which is impractical for long interstate transmission routes,
Data can not be be downloaded, and
The on-screen representation of the routes disappears when users zoom in too far.
Within Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) maintains the Pennsylvania Pipeline Portal, which contains a lot of information about various recent pipeline projects. However, with the sole exception of the Mariner East II project, the agency does not provide any geospatial data for the routes. The reason for this is explained on the Mariner East II page:
These shapefiles are the GIS data layers associated with the permits that have been submitted for the proposed pipeline project. These shapefiles are not required as part of a permit application and are not commonly submitted but were provided to the Department by Sunoco Pipeline, L.P.
The files were accepted by the Department to aid in the review of the application material given the large scale of the project. The shapefiles ease the review by displaying some information contained in the hardcopy of the plans and application in a different format.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) does make oil and gas infrastructure data available, including pipelines, where it occurs on state forest land.
Pennsylvania Pipelines Map
Considering the risks posed by pipelines, their proliferation in Pennsylvania, and this critical juncture in their development with an implicit opportunity to document impacts, FracTracker believes it is important now to develop an accurate interactive statewide map of these projects, fortify it with essential data layers, and facilitate citizen reporting of the problems that are occurring.
Other than the Mariner East II route and the state forest data available from DCNR, all of the pipeline routes on our Pennsylvania Pipeline Map, below, have been painstakingly digitized – either from paper maps, PDFs, or other digital media – to make geospatial data that can analyzed by interacting with other datasets. These layers are only as good as their sources, and may not be exact in some cases, but they are orders of magnitude better than data produced by public agencies such as DHS.
Figure 3: FracTracker’s Pennsylvania Pipeline Map. View fulll screen to explore map further, view water crossings, and other details not visible at the statewide map view.
Data Layers on Pennsylvania Pipelines Map
PHMSA incidents (7-13-2018). Pipeline incidents that were reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. These reports contain significant information about the incidents, including location coordinates, and are shown on the map with white circles.
Note that a few of the location coordinates appear to be erroneous, as two reports appear outside of the state boundary.
Mariner East II – Inadvertent Returns (6-1-2018). This data layer shows inadvertent returns – or spills – related to the construction of the Mariner East II pipeline. This is a combination of two reports, including one where the spills that impacted waterways, and those categorized as upland spills. These are represented on the map by orange dots that vary in size depending on the amount of fluid that spilled. Some of the locations were provided as latitude / longitude coordinates, while others are estimates based on the description. In a few cases, the latitude value was adjusted to intersect the pipeline route. In each case, the adjusted location was in the correct county and municipality.
Known Stream & Wetland Crossings (2018). This shows the locations where the known pipeline routes intersect with streams and other wetlands on the National Wetland Inventory. These are organized by our four pipeline layers that follow, including FracTracker Vetted Pipelines (1,397 crossings), DCNR Pipelines (184 crossings), PHMSA Gas Pipelines (6,767 crossings), and Bradford County Gathering Lines (867 crossings). These crossings are shown as diamonds that match the colors of the four listed pipeline layers.
FracTracker Vetted Pipelines (2018). This pipeline layer is an aggregation of pipeline routes that have been digitized in recent years. Much of this digitization was performed by the FracTracker Alliance, and it is an available layer on our mobile app. These are largely newer projects, and contain some routes, such as the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, that have not been built yet. In some cases, multiple versions of the pipeline routes are printed, and we may not have the final version of the route in all circumstances. FracTracker Vetted Pipelines are represented with a red line.
DCNR Pipelines (2018). This includes pipeline routes on state forest lands, and is shown as green lines on the map.
PHMSA Gas Pipelines (2018). This includes data digitized from the PHMSA Public Pipeline Viewer. This source contains gas and liquid pipelines, but only gas pipelines are included in this analysis. These routes are shown in a bright purplish pink color.
Bradford County Gathering Lines (2014). This layer was digitized by the FracTracker Alliance after Bradford County published a printed map of gathering lines within the county in 2014. It is the only county in Pennsylvania that we have gathering line data for, and it is shown on the map as a yellow line.
Streams & Wetlands with 1/2 Mile of Pipelines (2018). This clipped layer of the National Wetlands Inventory is provided for visual reference of the wetlands near known pipeline routes. Due to the large amount of data, this layer is only visible when users zoom in to a scale of 1:500,000, or about the size of a large county.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology
This article is the first in a two-part series on Pennsylvania pipelines. Stay tuned!
FracTracker Alliance recently created a set of maps showing population variation along the route of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline, which I refer to as the “Dragonpipe.” FracTracker’s maps dramatically reveal a route that runs through many centers of dense population, and seems to avoid relatively nearby areas with far lower population density. The maps are based on US Census 2010 block-level data.
The take-away lesson from these maps is this: Sunoco has put the Dragonpipe in a very bad location.
As an example, here is a map of the pipeline route as it passes through Berks, Chester, and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania:
Figure 1. Population density in southeastern Pennsylvania. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.
The dark brown areas in the map above denote the most densely populated locations, displayed as the number of people per square mile. The lighter the color, the lower the population density. The black line is the pipeline route.
In the upper left-hand part of the map, note that the route passes through the suburbs of Reading, in Berks County. Further south in the same map, notice how it passes directly through population centers in Chester and Delaware counties.
Let’s examine this pattern more closely.
Why was this route chosen in the first place?
For Sunoco’s convenience
In many areas, from a standpoint of impacts on local communities, the pipeline route is actually the worst possible track that Sunoco could have chosen; it puts more people at risk than any other path, given the same starting- and endpoints. Why in the world did they choose this route?
The answer is this: for Sunoco’s corporate convenience. The Dragonpipe, for most of its length, runs side-by-side Mariner East 1 (ME1), an existing 80+ year-old pipeline designed to carry gasoline and heating oil to customers in the central and western parts of Pennsylvania. From this standpoint, the location of the old pipeline makes sense; it had to be sited near populated areas. That’s where the customers for gasoline and heating oil were located back in the 1930s.
However, the flip-side of Sunoco’s corporate convenience may also mean unnecessary risks to tens of thousands of Pennsylvania residents.
The old pipeline connected the centers of population in the 1930s, areas that are now much more populous when they were nearly ninety years ago. In the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, the character of the area has also changed dramatically. When the original pipeline was built, the landscape along ME1’s route through Delaware and Chester counties was predominantly farmland. Today, that area has changed to densely-settled suburbs, with homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, and shopping centers directly adjacent to the pipeline’s right-of-way.
The Exton area provides a prime example of how this transition to suburbia has set the stage for potential disaster along the pipeline route. The following image shows a detailed view of the population density near Exton. As you can see, the pipeline route sticks to high-density areas (shown in dark brown) the entire way, even though lower-density options (shown in orange and yellow) exist nearby.
Figure 2. Population density in Exton area. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.
Sunoco — like any corporation — has a moral obligation to conduct its business in a safe manner. This includes choosing a safe route for a pipeline that has inherent dangers and risks. However, Sunoco apparently did not choose to do so. Moreover, by law, Sunoco has an obligation to make human safety paramount. In the settlement Sunoco reached last August with Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association, Sunoco agreed to consider alternative routing for the pipeline in this area. Then, despite their promises, Sunoco simply bypassed that part of the agreement. Rather than explore alternatives to the proposed route, Sunoco dismissed the alternatives as “not practicable” because they did not involve the right-of-way that was already in use for Mariner East 1.
Sunoco seemed to have made their sole priority in considering a pipeline route whether the company has an existing pipeline there already. A better route would reduce by hundreds the number of people who could be killed or injured if there were a leak and explosion.
Pipelines can and do leak. Mariner East 1, in its short career as a pipeline carrying NGLs, has already leaked several times. It is just good luck that the leaks were stopped before any product ignited. (See most recent report of ME1 and ME2 issues.) The Atex pipeline, a pipeline of similar size and content that runs down to the Gulf Coast, ruptured and exploded near Follansbee, WV, in just its second year of operation. And there’s no reason to believe such an incident would never happen with the Dragonpipe.
Sunoco has an obligation to do what it can to minimize the injuries, death, and destruction caused by an event like the Follansbee explosion. The Follansbee incident occurred in a forested area. The explosion destroyed several acres of trees, but no-one was killed. The result would have been far different if had the explosion been in a densely populated area.
Just as the maps above show how the Philadelphia suburbs and those of Reading are threatened, other FracTracker maps show the threats to suburbs of Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, below. Click to expand.
A call for change
Indeed, across the state, the Dragonpipe route gets dangerously and notably close to population centers. Such a path may be a convenient and financially beneficial option for Sunoco, but it is an unacceptable risk for Pennsylvania’s citizens to bear.
About the Author: George Alexander publishes the Dragonpipe Diary (www.dragonpipediary.com), covering all aspects the Mariner East pipeline project, including technology, risks, legal issues, economics, and the people and groups involved. He recently retired from a career in journalism and marketing.
An earlier version of this essay was published in Mr. Alexander’s blog, Dragonpipe Diary, on June 29, 2018.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ME2-Dragonpipe-Map-Feature.jpg400900Guest Authorhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgGuest Author2018-07-20 13:32:312020-03-12 15:03:14Population density maps: Lessons on where NOT to put a pipeline
In August 2016, Shell Pipeline announced plans to develop the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, a 97-mile pipeline network that will carry more than 107,000 barrels of ethane per day through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, to feed Shell Appalachia’s petrochemical facility currently under construction in Beaver County, PA.
FracTracker has covered the proposed Falcon pipeline extensively in recent months. Our Falcon Public EIA Project explored the project in great detail, revealing the many steps involved in risk assessments and a range of potential impacts to public and environmental health.
Shell’s response to these events has invariably focused on their intent to build and operate a pipeline that exceeds safety standards, as well as their commitments to being a good neighbor. In this article, we investigate these claims by looking at federal data on safety incidents related to Shell Pipeline.
Contrary to claims, records show that Shell’s safety record is one of the worst in the nation.
The “Good Neighbor” Narrative
Maintaining a reputation as a “good neighbor” is paramount to pipeline companies. Negotiating with landowners, working with regulators, and getting support from implicated communities can hinge on the perception that the pipeline will be built and operated in a responsible manner. This is evident in cases where Shell Pipeline has sold the Falcon in press releases as an example of the company’s commitment to safety in public comments.
Figure 1. Shell flyer
A recent flyer distributed to communities in the path of the Falcon, seen in Figure 1, also emphasizes safety, such as in claims that “Shell Pipeline has a proven track record of operating safely and responsibility and remains committed to engaging with local communities regarding impacts that may arise from its operations.”
Shell reinforced their “good neighbor” policy on several occasions at a recent Shell-sponsored information meeting held in Beaver County, stating that, everywhere they do business, Shell was committed to the reliable delivery of their product. According to project managers speaking at the event, this is achieved through “planning and training with first responders, preventative maintenance for the right-of-way and valves, and through inspections—all in the name of maintaining pipeline integrity.”
Shell Pipeline also recently created an informational website dedicated to the Falcon pipeline to provide details on the project and emphasize its minimal impact. Although, curiously, Shell’s answer to the question “Is the pipeline safe?” is blank.
U.S. Pipeline Incident Data
Every few years FracTracker revisits data on pipeline safety incidents that is maintained by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). In our last national analysis we found that there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion.
These numbers were based on U.S. data from 2010-2016 for natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines, natural gas distribution pipelines, and hazardous liquids pipelines. It is also worth noting that incident data are heavily dependent on voluntary reporting. They also do not account for incidents that were only investigated at the state level.
Shell Pipeline has only a few assets related to transmission, gathering, and distribution lines. Almost all of their pipeline miles transport highly-volatile liquids such as crude oil, refined petroleum products, and hazardous liquids such as ethane. Therefore, to get a more accurate picture of how Shell Pipeline’s safety record stacks up to comparable operators, our analysis focuses exclusively on PHMSA’s hazardous liquids pipeline data. We also expanded our analysis to look at incidents dating back to 2002.
Shell’s Incident Record
In total, PHMSA data show that Shell was responsible for 194 pipeline incidents since 2002. These incidents spilled 59,290 barrels of petrochemical products totaling some $183-million in damages. The below map locates where most of these incidents occurred. Unfortunately, 34 incidents have no location data and so are not visible on the map. The map also shows the location of Shell’s many refineries, transport terminals, and off-shore drilling platforms.
Open the map fullscreen to see more details and tools for exploring the data.
PHMSA’s hazardous liquid pipeline data account for more than 350 known pipeline operators. Some operators are fairly small, only maintaining a few miles of pipeline. Others are hard to track subsidiaries of larger companies. However, the big players stand out from the pack — some 20 operators account for more than 60% of all pipeline miles in the U.S., and Shell Pipeline is one of these 20.
Comparing Shell Pipeline to other major operators carrying HVLs, we found that Shell ranks 2nd in the nation in the most incidents-per-mile of maintained pipeline, seen in table 1 below. These numbers are based on the total incidents since 2002 divided by the number of miles maintained by each operator as of 2016 miles. Table 2 breaks Shell’s incidents down by year and number of miles maintained for each of those years.
Table 1: U.S. Pipeline operators ranked by incidents-per-mile
HVL Pipeline Miles
Incidents Per Mile (2016)
Table 2: Shell incidents and maintained pipeline miles by year
no PHMSA data
no PHMSA data
Hurricane Katrina & Rita
no PHMSA data
no PHMSA data
As of 3/1/18
Cause & Location of Failure
What were the causes of Shell’s pipeline incidents? At Shell’s public informational session, it was said that “in the industry, we know that the biggest issue with pipeline accidents is third party problems – when someone, not us, hits the pipeline.” However, PHMSA data reveal that most of Shell’s incidents issues should have been under the company’s control. For instance, 66% (128) of incidents were due to equipment failure, corrosion, welding failure, structural issues, or incorrect operations (Table 3).
Table 3. Shell Pipeline incidents by cause of failure
Material and/or Weld Failure
However, not all of these incidents occurred at one of Shell’s petrochemical facilities. As Table 4 below illustrates, at least 57 incidents occurred somewhere along the pipeline’s right-of-way through public areas or migrated off Shell’s property to impact public spaces. These numbers may be higher as 47 incidents have no mention of the property where incidents occurred.
Table 4. Shell Pipeline incidents by location of failure
Contained on Operator Property
Originated on Operator Property, Migrated off Property
Contained on Operator-Controlled Right-of-Way
On several occasions, Shell has claimed that the Falcon will be safely “unseen and out of mind” beneath at least 4ft of ground cover. However, even when this standard is exceeded, PHMSA data revealed that at least a third of Shell’s incidents occurred beneath 4ft or more of soil.
Many of the aboveground incidents occurred at sites like pumping stations and shut-off valves. For instance, a 2016 ethylene spill in Louisiana was caused by lightning striking a pumping station, leading to pump failure and an eventual fire. In numerous incidents, valves failed due to water seeping into systems from frozen pipes, or large rain events overflowing facility sump pumps. Table 5 below breaks these incidents down by the kind of commodity involved in each case.
Table 5. Shell Pipeline incidents by commodity spill volumes
Highly Volatile Liquids
Impacts & Costs
None of Shell’s incidents resulted in fatalities, injuries, or major explosions. However, there is evidence of significant environmental and community impacts. Of 150 incidents that included such data, 76 resulted in soil contamination and 38 resulted in water contamination issues. Furthermore, 78 incidents occurred in high consequence areas (HCAs)—locations along the pipeline that were identified during construction as having sensitive environmental habitats, drinking water resources, or densely populated areas.
Table 6 below shows the costs of the 194 incidents. These numbers are somewhat deceiving as the “Public (other)” category includes such things as inspections, environmental cleanup, and disposal of contaminated soil. Thus, the costs incurred by private citizens and public services totaled more than $80-million.
Table 6. Costs of damage from Shell Pipeline incidents
Damage to Operator
A number of significant incidents are worth mention. For instance, in 2013, a Shell pipeline rupture led to as much as 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into a waterway near Houston, Texas, that connects to the Gulf of Mexico. Shell’s initial position was that no rupture or spill had occurred, but this was later found not to be the case after investigations by the U.S. Coast Guard. The image at the top of this page depicts Shell’s cleanup efforts in the waterway.
Another incident found that a Shell crude oil pipeline ruptured twice in less than a year in the San Joaquin Valley, CA. Investigations found that the ruptures were due to “fatigue cracks” that led to 60,000 gallons of oil spilling into grasslands, resulting in more than $6 million in environmental damage and emergency response costs. Concerns raised by the State Fire Marshal’s Pipeline Safety Division following the second spill in 2016 forced Shell to replace a 12-mile stretch of the problematic pipeline, as seen in the image above.
These findings suggest that while Shell is obligated to stress safety to sell the Falcon pipeline to the public, people should take Shell’s “good neighbor” narrative with a degree of skepticism. The numbers presented by PHMSA’s pipeline incident data significantly undermine Shell’s claim of having a proven track record as a safe and responsible operator. In fact, Shell ranks near the top of all US operators for incidents per HVL pipeline mile maintained, as well as damage totals.
There are inherent gaps in our analysis based on data inadequacies worth noting. Incidents dealt with at the state level may not make their way into PHMSA’s data, nor would problems that are not voluntary reported by pipeline operators. Issues similar to what the state of Pennsylvania has experienced with Sunoco Pipeline’s Mariner East 2, where horizontal drilling mishaps have contaminated dozens of streams and private drinking water wells, would likely not be reflected in PHMSA’s data unless those incidents resulted in federal interventions.
Based on the available data, however, most of Shell’s pipelines support one of the company’s many refining and storage facilities, primarily located in California and the Gulf states of Texas and Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, these areas are also where we see dense clusters of pipeline incidents attributed to Shell. In addition, many of Shell’s incidents appear to be the result of inadequate maintenance and improper operations, and less so due to factors beyond their control.
As Shell’s footprint in the Appalachian region expands, their safety history suggests we could see the same proliferation of pipeline incidents in this area over time, as well.
NOTE: This article was amended on 4/9/18 to include table 2.
On February 15, 2018, officials evacuated residents after XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well near Captina Creek exploded in the Powhatan Point area of Belmont County, Ohio. More than two weeks later, the well’s subsequent blowout has yet to be capped, and people want to know why. Here is what we know based on various reports, our Ohio oil and gas map, and our own fly-by on March 5th.
March 19th Update: This is footage of the Powhatan Point XTO Well Pad Explosion Footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol’s helicopter camera the day after the incident:
Powhatan Point XTO well pad explosion footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol
Cause of the Explosion
The well pad hosts three wells, one large Utica formation well, and two smaller ones. XTO’s representative stated that the large Utica well was being brought into production when the explosion occurred. The shut-off valves for the other two wells were immediately triggered, but the explosion caused a crane to fall on one of those wells. The representative claims that no gas escaped that well or the unaffected well.
Observers reported hearing a natural gas hiss and rumbling, as well as seeing smoke. The Powhatan Point Fire Chief reported that originally there was no fire, but that one later developed on the well pad. To make matters worse, reports later indicated that responders are/were dealing with emergency flooding on site, as well.
As of today, the Utica well that initially exploded is still releasing raw gas.
Map of drilling operations in southeast Ohio, with the Feb 15, 2018 explosion on XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well pad marked with a star. View dynamic map
Public Health and Safety
No injuries were reported after the incident. First responders from all over the country are said to have been called in, though the mitigation team is not allowed to work at night for safety reasons.
The evacuation zone is for any non-responders within a 1-mile radius of the site, which is located on Cat’s Run Road near State Route 148. Thirty (30) homes were originally evacuated within the 1-mile zone according to news reports, but recently residents within the outer half-mile of the zone were cleared to return – though some have elected to stay away until the issue is resolved completely. As of March 1, four homes within ½ mile of the well pad remain off limits.
The EPA conducted a number of site assessments right after the incident, including air and water monitoring. See here and here for their initial reports from February 17th and 20th, respectively. (Many thanks to the Ohio Environmental Council for sharing those documents.)
Much of the site’s damaged equipment has been removed. Access roads to the pad have been reinforced. A bridge was recently delivered to be installed over Cats Run Creek, so as to create an additional entrance and exit from the site, speaking to the challenges faced in drilling in rural areas. A portion of the crane that fell on the adjacent wellhead has been removed, and workers are continuing their efforts in removing the rest of the crane.
The above video by Earthworks is optical gas imaging that makes visible what is normally invisible pollution from XTO’s Powhatan Point well disaster. The video was taken on March 3, 2018, almost 3 weeks after the accident that started the uncontrolled release. Learn more about Earthworks’ video and what FLIR videos show.
An early estimate for the rate of raw gas being released from this well is 100 million cubic feet/day – more than the daily rate of the infamous Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in 2015/16. Unfortunately, little public information has been provided about why the well has yet to be capped or how much gas has been released to date.
Bird’s Eye View
On February 26, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8. On March 5, we did a flyover outside of the temporary flight restriction zone, where we managed to capture a photo of the ongoing release through a valley cut. Many thanks to LightHawk and pilot Dave Warner for the lift.
XTO Energy well site and ongoing emissions after the explosion over two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, March 5, 2018. Aerial support provided by LightHawk
Per the Wheeling Intelligencer – Any local residents who may have been impacted by this incident are encouraged to call XTO’s claims phone number at 855-351-6573 or visit XTO’s community response command center at the Powhatan Point Volunteer Fire Department, located at 104 Mellott St. or call the fire department at 740-312-5058.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/XTO-Incident-Feature.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2018-03-06 15:53:362020-03-11 13:59:56Waiting on Answers Weeks after a Well Explosion in Belmont County Ohio
Oil and gas operators are polluting groundwater in Colorado, and the state and U.S. EPA are granting them permission with exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
FracTracker Alliance’s newest analysis attempts to identify groundwater risks in Colorado groundwater from the injection of oil and gas waste. Specifically, we look at groundwater monitoring data near Class II underground injection control (UIC) disposal wells and in areas that have been granted aquifer exemptions from the underground source of drinking water rules of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Momentum to remove amend the SDWA and remove these exemption.
Aquifer exemptions are granted to allow corporations to inject hazardous wastewater into groundwater aquifers. The majority, two-thirds, of these injection wells are Class II, specifically for oil and gas wastes.
The results of this assessment provide insight into high-risk issues with aquifer exemptions and Class II UIC well permitting standards in Colorado. We identify areas where aquifer exemptions have been granted in high quality groundwater formations, and where deep underground aquifers are at risk or have become contaminated from Class II disposal wells that may have failed.
Of note: On March 23, 2016, NRDC submitted a formal petition urging the EPA to repeal or amend the aquifer exemption rules to protect drinking water sources and uphold the Safe Drinking Water Act. Learn more
Research shows injection wells do fail
Class II injection well in Colorado explodes and catches fire. Photo by Kelsey Brunner for the Greeley Tribune.
Disposal of oil and gas wastewater by underground injection has not yet been specifically researched as a source of systemic groundwater contamination nationally or on a state level. Regardless, this issue is particularly pertinent to Colorado, since there are about 3,300 aquifer exemptions in the US (view map), and the majority of these are located in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. There is both a physical risk of danger as well as the risk of groundwater contamination. The picture to the right shows an explosion of a Class II injection well in Greeley, CO, for example.
Applicable and existing research on injection wells shows that a risk of groundwater contamination of – not wastewater – but migrated methane due to a leak from an injection well was estimated to be between 0.12 percent of all the water wells in the Colorado region, and was measured at 4.5 percent of the water wells that were tested in the study.
…groundwater contamination problems related to the subsurface disposal of liquid wastes by deep-well injection have been reviewed in the literature since 1950 (Morganwalp, 1993) and groundwater contamination accordingly is a serious problem.
According to his textbook, a 1974 U.S. EPA report specifically warns of the risk of corrosion by oil and gas waste brines on handling equipment and within the wells. The potential effects of injection wells on groundwater can even be reviewed in the U.S. EPA publications (1976, 1996, 1997).
As early as 1969, researchers Evans and Bradford, who reported on the dangers that could occur from earthquakes on injection wells near Denver in 1966, had warned that deep well injection techniques offered temporary and not long-term safety from the permanent toxic wastes injected.
Will existing Class II wells fail?
For those that might consider data and literature on wells from the 1960’s as being unrepresentative of activities occurring today, of the 587 wells reported by the Colorado’s oil and gas regulatory body, COGCC, as “injecting,” 161 of those wells were drilled prior to 1980. And 104 were drilled prior to 1960!
Wells drilled prior to 1980 are most likely to use engineering standards that result in “single-point-of-failure” well casings. As outlined in the recent report from researchers at Harvard on underground natural gas storage wells, these single-point-of-failure wells are at a higher risk of leaking.
It is also important to note that the U.S. EPA reports only 569 injection wells for Colorado, 373 of which may be disposal wells. This is a discrepancy from the number of injection wells reported by the COGCC.
Aquifer Exemptions in Colorado
According to COGCC, prior to granting a permit for a Class II injection well, an aquifer exemption is required if the aquifer’s groundwater test shows total dissolved solids (TDS) is between 3,000 and 10,000 milligrams per liter (mg/l). For those aquifer exemptions that are simply deeper than the majority of current groundwater wells, the right conditions, such as drought, or the needs of the future may require drilling deeper or treating high TDS waters for drinking and irrigation. How the state of Colorado or the U.S. EPA accounts for economic viability is therefore ill-conceived.
Data Note: The data for the following analysis came by way of FOIA request by Clean Water Action focused on the aquifer exemption permitting process. The FOIA returned additional data not reported by the US EPA in the public dataset. That dataset contained target formation sampling data that included TDS values. The FOIA documents were attached to the EPA dataset using GIS techniques. These GIS files can be found for download in the link at the bottom of this page.
Map 1 above shows the locations of aquifer exemptions in Colorado, as well as the locations of Class II injection wells. These sites are overlaid on a spatial assessment of groundwater quality (a map of the groundwater’s quality), which was generated for the entire state. The changing colors on the map’s background show spatial trends of TDS values, a general indicator of overall groundwater quality.
In Map 1 above, we see that the majority of Class II injection wells and aquifer exemptions are located in regions with higher quality water. This is a common trend across the state, and needs to be addressed.
Our review of aquifer exemption data in Colorado shows that aquifer exemption applications were granted for areas reporting TDS values less than 3,000 mg/l, which contradicts the information reported by the COGCC as permitting guidelines. Additionally, of the 175 granted aquifer exemptions for which the FOIA returned data, 141 were formations with groundwater samples reported at less than 10,000 mg/l TDS. This is half of the total number (283) of aquifer exemptions in the state of Colorado.
When we mapped where class II injection wells are permitted, a total of 587 class II wells were identified in Colorado, outside of an aquifer exemption area. Of the UIC-approved injection wells identified specifically as disposal wells, at least 21 were permitted outside aquifer exemptions and were drilled into formations that were not hydrocarbon producing. Why these injection wells are allowed to operate outside of an aquifer exemption is unknown – a question for regulators.
You can see in the map that most of the aquifer exemptions and injection wells in Colorado are located in areas with lower TDS values. We then used GIS to conduct a spatial analysis that selected groundwater wells within five miles of the 21 that were permitted outside aquifer exemptions. Results show that groundwater wells near these sites had consistently low-TDS values, meaning good water quality. In Colorado, where groundwater is an important commodity for a booming agricultural industry and growing cities that need to prioritize municipal sources, permitting a Class II disposal well in areas with high quality groundwater is irresponsible.
In Map 2, above, the locations of groundwater wells in Colorado are shown. The colors of the dots represent the concentration of TDS on the right and well depth on the left side of the screen. By sliding the bar on the map, users can visualize both. This feature allows people to explore where deep wells also are characterized by high levels of TDS. Users can also see that areas with high quality low TDS groundwater are the same areas that are the most developed with oil and gas production wells and Class II injection wells, shown in gradients of purple.
Statistical analysis of this spatial data gives a clearer picture of which regions are of particular concern; see below in Map 3.
In Map 3, above, the data visualized in Map 2 were input into a hot-spots analysis, highlighting where high and low values of TDS and depth differ significantly from the rest of the data. The region of the Front Range near Denver has significantly deeper wells, as a result of population density and the need to drill municipal groundwater wells.
The Front Range is, therefore, a high-risk region for the development of oil and gas, particularly from Class II injection wells that are necessary to support development.
Methods Notes: The COGCC publishes groundwater monitoring data for the state of Colorado, and groundwater data is also compiled nationally by the Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI). (Data from the National Groundwater Monitoring Network is sponsored by the ACWI Subcommittee on Ground Water.) These datasets were cleaned, combined, revised, and queried to develop FracTracker’s dataset of Colorado groundwater wells. We cleaned the data by removing sites without coordinates. Duplicates in the data set were removed by selecting for the deepest well sample. Our dataset of water wells consisted of 5,620 wells. Depth data was reported for 3,925 wells. We combined this dataset with groundwater data exported from ACWI. Final count for total wells with TDS data was 11,754 wells. Depth data was reported for 7,984 wells. The GIS files can be downloaded in the compressed folder at the bottom of this page.
Site Assessments – Exploring Specific Regions
Particular regions were further investigated for impacts to groundwater, and to identify areas that may be at a high risk of contamination. There are numerous ways that groundwater wells can be contaminated from other underground activity, such as hydrocarbon exploration and production or waste injection and disposal. Contamination could be from hydraulic fracturing fluids, methane, other hydrocarbons, or from formation brines.
From the literature, brines and methane are the most common contaminants. This analysis focuses on potential contamination events from brines, which can be detected by measuring TDS, a general measure for the mixture of minerals, salts, metals and other ions dissolved in waters. Brines from hydrocarbon-producing formations may include heavy metals, radionuclides, and small amounts of organic matter.
Wells with high or increasing levels of TDS are a red flag for potential contamination events.
Groundwater wells at deep depths with high TDS readings are, therefore, the focus of this assessment. Using GIS methods we screened our dataset of groundwater wells to only identify those located within a buffer zone of five miles from Class II injection wells. This distance was chosen based on a conservative model for groundwater contamination events, as well as the number of returned sample groundwater wells and the time and resources necessary for analysis. We then filtered the groundwater wells dataset for high TDS values and deep well depths to assess for potential impacts that already exist. We, of course, explored the data as we explored the spatial relationships. We prioritized areas that suggested trends in high TDS readings, and then identified individual wells in these areas. The data initially visualized were the most recent sampling events. For the wells prioritized, prior sampling events were pulled from the data. The results were graphed to see how the groundwater quality has changed over time.
Case of Increasing TDS Readings
If you zoom to the southwest section of Colorado in Map 2, you can see that groundwater wells located near the injection well 1 Fasset SWD (EPA) (05-067-08397) by Operator Elm Ridge Exploration Company LLC were disproportionately high (common). Groundwater wells located near this injection well were selected for, and longitudinal TDS readings were plotted to look for trends in time. (Figure 1.)
The graphs in Figure 1, below, show a consistent increase of TDS values in wells near the injection activity. While the trends are apparent, the data is limited by low numbers of repeated samples at each well, and the majority of these groundwater wells have not been sampled in the last 10 years. With the increased use of well stimulation and enhanced oil recovery techniques over the course of the last 10 years, the volumes of injected wastewater has also increased. The impacts may, therefore, be greater than documented here.
This area deserves additional sampling and monitoring to assess whether contamination has occurred.
Figures 1a and 1b. The graphs above show increasing TDS values in samples from groundwater wells in close proximity to the 1 Fassett SWD wellsite, between the years 2004-2015. Each well is labeled with a different color. The data for the USGS well in the graph on the right was not included with the other groundwater wells due to the difference in magnitude of TDS values (it would have been off the chart).
Groundwater Contamination Case in 2007
We also uncovered a situation where a disposal well caused groundwater contamination. Well records for Class II injection wells in the southeast corner of Colorado were reviewed in response to significantly high readings of TDS values in groundwater wells surrounding the Mckinley #1-20-WD disposal well.
When the disposal well was first permitted, farmers and ranchers neighboring the well site petitioned to block the permit. Language in the grant application is shown below in Figure 2. The petitioners identified the target formation as their source of water for drinking, watering livestock, and irrigation. Regardless of this petition, the injection well was approved. Figure 3 shows the language used by the operator Energy Alliance Company (EAC) for the permit approval, which directly contradicts the information provided by the community surrounding the wellsite. Nevertheless, the Class II disposal well was approved, and failed and leaked in 2007, leading to the high TDS readings in the groundwater in this region.
Figure 2. Petition by local landowners opposing the use of their drinking water source formation for the site of a Class II injection disposal well.
Figure 3. The oil and gas operation EAC claims the Glorietta formation is not a viable fresh water source, directly contradicting the neighboring farmers and ranchers who rely on it.
Figure 4. The COGCC well log report shows a casing failure, and as a result a leak that contaminated groundwater in the region.
Areas where lack of data restricted analyses
In other areas of Colorado, the lack of recent sampling data and longitudinal sampling schemes made it even more difficult to track potential contamination events. For these regions, FracTracker recommends more thorough sampling by the regulatory agencies COGCC and USGS. This includes much of the state, as described below.
Our review of the groundwater data in southeastern Colorado showed a risk of contamination considering the overlap of injection well depths with the depths of drinking water wells. Oil and gas extraction and Class II injections are permitted where the aquifers include the Raton formation, Vermejo Formation, Poison Canyon Formation and Trinidad Sandstone. Groundwater samples were taken at depths up to 2,200 ft with a TDS value of 385 mg/l. At shallower depths, TDS values in these formations reached as high as 6,000 mg/l, and 15 disposal wells are permitted in aquifer exemptions in this region. Injections in this area start at around 4,200 ft.
In Southwestern Colorado, groundwater wells in the San Jose Formation are drilled to documented depths of up to 6,000 feet with TDS values near 2,000 mg/l. Injection wells in this region begin at 565 feet, and those used specifically for disposal begin at below 5,000 feet in areas with aquifer exemptions. There are also four disposal wells outside of aquifer exemptions injecting at 5,844 feet, two of which are not injecting into active production zones at depths of 7,600 and 9,100 feet.
In western Colorado well Number 1-32D VANETA (05-057-06467) by Operator Sandridge Exploration and Production LLC’s North Park Horizontal Niobara Field in the Dakota-Lokota Formation has an aquifer exemption. The sampling data from two groundwater wells to the southeast, near Coalmont, CO, were reviewed, but we can’t get a good picture due to the lack of repeat sampling.
In Northwestern Colorado near Walden, CO and the McCallum oil field, two groundwater wells with TDS above 10,000 ppm were selected for review. There are 21 injection wells in the McCallum field to the northwest. Beyond the McCallum field is the Battleship field with two wastewater disposal wells with an aquifer exemption. West of Grover, Colorado, there are several wells with high TDS values reported for shallow wells. Similar trends can be seen near Vernon. The data on these wells and wells from along the northern section of the Front Range, which includes the communities of Fort Collins, Greeley, and Longmont, suffered from the same issue. Lack of deep groundwater well data coupled with the lack of repeat samples, as well as recent sampling inhibited the ability to thoroughly investigate the threat of contamination.
Trends and Future Development
Current trends in exploration and development of unconventional resources show the industry branching southwest of Weld County towards Fort Collins, Longmont, Broomfield and Boulder, CO.
These regions are more densely populated than the Front Range county of Weld, and as can be seen in the maps, the drinking water wells that access groundwaters in these regions are some of the deepest in the state.
This analysis shows where Class II injection has already contaminated groundwater resources in Colorado. The region where the contamination has occurred is not unique; the drinking water wells are not particularly deep, and the density of Class II wells is far from the highest in the state.
Well casing failures and other injection issues are not exactly predictable due to the variety of conditions that can lead to a well casing failure or blow-out scenario, but they are systemic. The result is a hazardous scenario where it is currently difficult to mitigate risk after the injection wells are drilled.
Allowing Class II wells to expand into Front Range communities that rely on deep wells for municipal supplies is irresponsible and dangerous.
The encroachment of extraction into these regions, coupled with the support of Class II injection wells to handle the wastewater, would put these groundwater wells at particular risk of contamination. Based on this analysis, we recommend that regulators take extra care to avoid permitting Class II wells in these regions as the oil and gas industry expands into new areas of the Front Range, particularly in areas with dense populations.
Feature Image: Joshua Doubek / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Article by: Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
October 31, 2017 Edit: This post originally cited the Clean Water Act instead of the Safe Drinking Water Act as the source that EPA uses to grant aquifer exemptions.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/kansas_wellpad.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgKyle Ferrar, MPH2017-10-26 14:55:032020-03-12 15:45:07Groundwater risks in Colorado due to Safe Drinking Water Act exemptions
As massive new pipeline projects continue to generate news, the existing midstream infrastructure that’s hidden beneath our feet continues to be problematic on a daily basis. Since 2010, there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion.
Figure 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.
In our previous analyses, pipeline incidents occurred at a rate of 1.6 per day nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Rates exceeding 1.9 incidents per day in 2014 and 2015 have brought the average rate up to 1.7 incidents per day. Incidents have been a bit less frequent in 2016, coming in at a rate of 1.43 incidents per day, or 1.59 if we roll results back to October 4th in order to capture all incidents that are reported within the mandatory 30 day window.
Figure 2: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.
These figures are the aggregation of three reports, namely natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines (828 incidents since 2010), natural gas distribution (736 incidents), and hazardous liquids (2,651 incidents). Not all of the hazardous liquids are petroleum related, but the vast majority are. 1,321 of the releases involved crude oil, and an additional 896 involved other liquid petroleum products, accounting for 84% of hazardous liquid incidents. The number could be higher, depending on the specific substances involved in the 399 highly volatile liquid (HVL) related incidents. The HVL category includes propane, butane, liquefied petroleum gases, ethylene, and propylene, as well as other volatile liquids that become gaseous at ambient conditions.
What is causing all of these pipeline incidents?
Figure 3: Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016.
Nonprofits, academics, and concerned citizens looking for accurate pipeline data will find that it is restricted, with the argument that releasing accurate pipeline data constitutes a threat to national security. This makes little sense for several reasons. First, with over 2.4 million miles of pipelines, they are nearly omnipresent. Additionally, similar data access restrictions only apply to midstream infrastructure such as pipelines and compressor stations, whereas the locations for wells, refineries, and power plants are all publicly available, despite the presence of the same volatile hydrocarbons at these facilities. Additionally, pipelines are purposefully marked with surface placards to help prevent unintentionally impacting the infrastructure.
In fact, a quick look at the causes of pipeline incidents reveal that it it much more dangerous to not know where the pipelines are located. In the “Other Incident Cause” category (Figure 3) there are 152 incidents that were caused by unsuspecting motor vehicles. When this is combined with incidents resulting from excavation damage, we have 558 cases where “not knowing” about the pipeline’s location likely contributed to the failure. On the other hand, there are 14 incidents (only .003%) where the cause is identified as intentional. While even one case of tampering with pipeline infrastructure is unacceptable, PHMSA incident data indicate that obfuscated pipelines are 40 times more likely to cause a problem when compared to sabotage. Equipment failures and corrosion account for more than half of all incidents.
Where do these incidents occur?
PHMSA is not allowed to make accurate pipeline location data available for download, but such rules apparently do not apply to pipeline incidents. The following map shows the 4,215 pipeline releases since 2010, highlighting those that have resulted in injuries and fatalities.
Pipeline incidents in the US. Please zoom in to access specific incident data. To see the legend and other tools, Please click here.
Figure 4: Pipeline incidents by state for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.
While operators are required to submit the incident’s location as a part of their report to PHMSA, data entry errors are common in the dataset. The FracTracker Alliance has been able to identify and correct a few of the higher profile errors, such as the February 9, 2011 explosion in Allentown, PA, the report for which had mangled the latitude and longitude values so badly that the incident was rendered in Greenland. Other errors persist in the dataset, however. Since 2010, pipeline incidents have occurred in Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and 49 states (the exception being Vermont). Ten states have at least 100 incidents apiece during the past six years (see Figure 4), and more than a quarter of all pipeline incidents in that time frame have occurred in Texas.
Which operators are responsible?
Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.
Altogether, there are 521 pipeline operators with reported releases, although many of these are affiliated with one another in some fashion. For example, the top two results in Figure 5 are almost certainly both subsidiaries of Enterprise Products Partners, L.P.
The real outlier in Figure 5, in terms of incidents per 100 miles, is Kinder Morgan Liquid Terminals; LLC. However, this is one of ten or more companies that share the Kinder Morgan name when reporting pipeline inventories. When taken in aggregate, companies with the Kinder Morgan name accounted for 142 incidents over a reported 7,939 miles, for a rate of 1.8 incidents per 100 miles. It should be noted that this, along with all of the statistics in Figure 5, are entirely based on matching the operator name between the incident and inventory reports. Kinder Morgan’s webpage boasts of 84,000 miles of pipelines in the US — there are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy in pipeline length, including additional Kinder Morgan subsidiaries, as well as whether gathering lines that aren’t considered to be mains are on both lists.
The operators responsible for the most deaths from pipeline incidents since 2010 include Pacific Gas & Electric (15), Washington Gas Light (9), and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (8). Of course, the greatest variable in whether or not a pipeline explosion kills people or not is whether or not the incident happens in a populated location. In the course of this analysis, there were 230 explosions and 635 fires over 2,500 days, meaning that there is pipeline explosion somewhere in the United States every 11 days, on average, and a fire every fourth day. The fact that only 65 of the incidents resulted in fatalities indicates that we have been rather lucky with incidents in the midstream sector.