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.

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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.


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


Oil Spills in North Dakota: What does DAPL mean for North Dakota’s future?

By Kate van Munster, Data & GIS Intern, and
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Pipelines are hailed as the “safest” way to transport crude oil and other refinery products, but federal and state data show that pipeline incidents are common and present major environmental and human health hazards. In light of current events that have green-lighted multiple new pipeline projects, including several that had been previously denied because of the environmental risk they pose, FracTracker Alliance is continuing to focus on pipeline issues.

In this article we look at the record of oil spills, particularly those resulting from pipeline incidents that have occurred in North Dakota, in order to determine the risk presented by the soon-to-be completed Dakota Access Pipeline.

Standing Rock & the DAPL Protest

To give readers a little history on this pipeline, demonstrators in North Dakota, as well as across the country, have been protesting a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lands since April 2016. The tribe’s momentum has shifted the focus from protests at the build site to legal battles and a march on Washington DC. The pipeline section they are protesting has at this point been largely finished, and is slated to begin pumping oil by April 2017. This final section of pipe crosses under Lake Oahe, a large reservoir created on the Missouri River, just 1.5 miles north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Lands. The tribe has condemned the pipeline because it cuts through sacred land and threatens their environmental and economic well-being by putting their only source for drinking water in jeopardy.


… supposedly safest form of transporting fossil fuels, but …

Pipeline proponents claim that pipelines are the safest method of transporting oil over long distances, whereas transporting oil with trucks has a higher accident and spill rate, and transporting with trains presents a major explosive hazards.

However, what makes one form of land transport safer than the others is dependent on which factor is being taken into account. When considering the costs of human death and property destruction, pipelines are indeed the safest form of land transportation. However, for the amount of oil spilled, pipelines are second-worst, beaten only by trucks. Now, when it comes to environmental impact, pipelines are the worst.

What is not debatable is the fact that pipelines are dangerous, regardless of factor. Between 2010 and October 2016 there was an average of 1.7 pipeline incidents per day across the U.S. according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). These incidents have resulted in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and over $3.4 billion in property damage. More than half of these incidents were caused by equipment failure and corrosion (See Figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1. Impacts of pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016 (data through September 2016). Original Analysis

pipeline incidents causes

Figure 2. Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016. Original Analysis

Recent Spills in North Dakota

To dig into the risks posed in North Dakota more specifically, let’s take a look at some spill data in the state.

Map 1. Locations of Spills in North Dakota, with volume represented by size of markers

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In North Dakota alone there have been 774 oil spill incidents between 2010 and September 2016, spilling an average of 5,131 gallons of oil per incident. The largest spill in North Dakota in recent history, and one of the largest onshore oil spills in the U.S., took place in September 2013. Over 865,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a wheat field and contaminated about 13 acres. The spill was discovered several days later by the farmer who owns the field, and was not detected by remote monitors. The state claims that no water sources were contaminated and no wildlife were hurt. However, over three years of constant work later, only about one third of the spill has been recovered.

This spill in 2013 may never be fully cleaned up. Cleanup attempts have even included burning away the oil where the spill contaminated wetlands.

More recently, a pipeline spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a North Dakota stream about 150 miles away from the DAPL protest camps. Electronic monitoring equipment, which is part of a pipeline’s safety precautions, did not detect the leak. Luckily, a landowner discovered the leak on December 5, 2016 before it got worse, and it was quickly contained. However, the spill migrated nearly 6 miles down the Ash Coulee Creek and fouled a number of private and U.S. Forest lands. It has also been difficult to clean up due to snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Even if a spill isn’t as large, it can still have a major effect. In July 2016, 66,000 gallons of heavy oil, mixed with some natural gas, spilled into the North Saskatchewan River in Canada. North Battleford and the city of Prince Albert had to shut off their drinking water intake from the river and were forced to get water from alternate sources. In September, 2 months later, the affected communities were finally able to draw water from the river again.

Toxicology of Oil

Hydrocarbons and other hazardous chemicals

Crude oil is a mixture of various hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are compounds that are made primarily of carbon and hydrogen. The most common forms of hydrocarbons in crude oil are paraffins. Crude oil also contains naphthenes and aromatics such as benzene, and many other less common molecules. Crude oil can also contain naturally occurring radioactive materials and trace metals. Many of these compounds are toxic and carcinogenic.


Figure 3. Four common hydrocarbon molecules containing hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). Image from Britannica

Crude oil spills can contaminate surface and groundwater, air, and soil. When a spill is fresh, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, quickly evaporate into the air. Other components of crude oil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can remain in the environment for years and leach into water.

Plants, animals, and people can sustain serious negative physical and biochemical effects when they come in contact with oil spills. People can be exposed to crude oil through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation. Expsure can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, and could cause “dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, confusion, and anemia.” VOCs can be inhaled and are highly toxic and carcinogenic. PAHs can also be carcinogenic and have been shown to damage fish embryos. When animals are exposed to crude oil, it can damage their liver, blood, and other tissue cells. It can also cause infertility and cancer. Crops exposed to crude oil become less nutritious and are contaminated with carcinogens, radioactive materials, and trace metals. Physically, crude oil can completely cover plants and animals, smothering them and making it hard for animals to stay warm, swim, or fly.

An Analysis of Spills in ND

Below we have analyzed available spill data for North Dakota, including the location and quantity of such incidents.

North Dakota saw an average of 111 crude oil spills per year, or a total of 774 spills from 2010 to October 2016. The greatest number of spills occurred in 2014 with a total of 163. But 2013 had the largest spill with 865,200 gallons and also the highest total volume of oil spilled in one year of 1.3 million gallons. (Table 1)

Table 1. Data on all spills from 2010 through October 2016. Data taken from PHMSA and North Dakota.

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Jan-Oct 2016
Number of Spills 55 80 77 126 163 117 156
Total Volume (gallons) 332,443 467,544 424,168 1,316,910 642,521 615,695 171,888
Ave. Volume/Spill (gallons) 6,044 5,844 5,509 10,452 3,942 5,262 1,102
Largest Spill (gallons) 158,928 106,050 58,758 865,200 33,600 105,000 64,863

The total volume of oil spilled from 2010 to October 2016 was nearly 4 million gallons, about 2.4 million of which was not contained. Most spills took place at wellheads, but the largest spills occurred along pipelines. (Table 2)

Table 2. Spills by Source. Data taken from PHMSA and North Dakota.

  Wellhead Vehicle Accident Storage Pipeline Equipment Uncontained All Spills
Number of Spills 694 1 12 54 13 364 774
Total Volume (gallons) 2,603,652 84 17,010 1,281,798 68,623 2,394,591 3,971,169
Ave. Volume/Spill (gallons) 3,752 84 1,418 23,737 5,279 6,579 5,131
Largest Spill (gallons) 106,050 84 10,416 865,200 64,863 865,200 865,200

A. Sensitive Areas Impacted

Spills that were not contained could potentially affect sensitive lands and waterways in North Dakota. Sensitive areas include Native American Reservations, waterways, drinking water aquifers, parks and wildlife habitat, and cities. Uncontained spill areas overlapped, and potentially contaminated, 5,875 square miles of land and water, and 408 miles of streams.

Drinking Water Aquifers – 2,482.3 total square miles:

  • Non-Community Aquifer – 0.3 square miles
  • Community Aquifer – 36 square miles of hydrologically connected aquifer
  • Surficial Aquifer – 2,446 square miles of hydrologically connected aquifer

A large area of potential drinking water (surficial aquifers) are at risk of contamination. Of the aquifers that are in use, aquifers for community use have larger areas that are potentially contaminated than those for non-community use.

Native American Tribal Reservation

  • Fort Berthold, an area of 1,569 square miles

Cities – 67 total square miles

  • Berthold
  • Dickinson
  • Flaxton
  • Harwood
  • Minot
  • Petersburg
  • Spring Brook
  • Stanley
  • West Fargo

Map 2. Areas where Oil Spills Present Public Health Threats

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B. Waterways Where Spills Have Occurred

  • Floodplains – 73 square miles of interconnected floodplains
  • Streams – 408 miles of interconnected streams
  • Of the 364 oil spills that have occurred since 2010, 229 (63%) were within 1/4 mile of a waterway
  • Of the 61 Uncontained Brine Spills that have occurred since 2001, 38 (63%) were within 1/4 mile of a waterway.

If a spill occurs in a floodplain during or before a flood and is uncontained, the flood waters could disperse the oil over a much larger area. Similarly, contaminated streams can carry oil into larger rivers and lakes. Explore Map 3 for more detail.

Map 3. Oil Spills in North Dakota Waterways

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C. Parks & Wildlife Habitat Impacts

1,684 total square miles

Habitat affected

  • National Grasslands – on 1,010 square miles of interconnected areas
  • United States Wildlife Refuges – 84 square miles of interconnected areas
  • North Dakota Wildlife Management Areas – 24 square miles of interconnected areas
  • Critical Habitat for Endangered Species – 566 square miles of interconnected areas

The endangered species most affected by spills in North Dakota is the Piping Plover. Explore Map 4 for more detail.

Map 4. Wildlife Areas Impacted by Oil Spills

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Using ArcGIS software, uncontained spill locations were overlaid on spatial datasets of floodplains, stream beds, groundwater regions, sensitive habitats, and other sensitive regions.

The average extent (distance) spilled oil traveled from uncontained spill sites was calculated to 400 meters. This distance was used as a buffer to approximate contact of waterways, floodplains, drinking water resources, habitat, etc. with uncontained oil spills.

Oil Spills in North Dakota Analysis References:

Cover Photo: The site of a December 2016 pipeline spill in North Dakota. Credit: Scott Stockdill/North Dakota Department of Health via AP

Flooded well and toppled oil storage tanks in Weld County, Colorado 2013. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Oil and Gas Flood Contamination Risk Incalculable on CO Front Range

By Sierra Shamer, Visiting Scholar, FracTracker Alliance

Historic 2013 flooding in the Colorado Front Range damaged homes, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure — including hundreds of oil and gas facilities. Companies shut down wells and scrambled to contain spills in their attempts to prevent extensive water contamination. Colorado has since adopted new regulations that require oil and gas companies to identify and secure all infrastructures located within floodplains. However, FEMA’s Flood Hazard maps, which the state uses to calculate flood risk, are largely incomplete, leaving only the industry accountable for reporting facilities that may be at risk in future flooding events. This article highlights the unknown flood contamination risk threatening the Front Range by oil and gas, and the featured map identifies known floodplain infrastructure.

Front Range Realities

CO Front Range counties re: flood contamination risk

Counties of the Colorado Front Range

The Colorado Front Range is the most populated region of the state, covering 17 counties and 7 cities including Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs. This region has experienced devastating flash flooding events throughout history, most notably the Big Thompson flood of 1976, which dumped 12-14 inches of rain along the Front Range in only 4-6 hours. The 2013 Colorado Front Range Flood brought almost 15 inches to the region, 9 of which falling within a period of 24 hours. A state of emergency was declared in the region and recovery projects continue to this day.

The Front Range region is not only one of the most populated in Colorado, it is also home to 40% of Colorado’s oil and gas wells. Oil and gas development occurs so rapidly that data reports on pending permits, active permits, and well locations are updated daily by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The damage to oil and gas facilities due to the 2013 floods prompted the COGCC to adopt Rule 603.h, requiring companies to identify proposed and current infrastructure within the floodplain and to create flood mitigation and response plans. On April 1st of this year, all companies with existing infrastructure must comply with Rule 603.h. With over 109,000 wells in the state, an incomplete FEMA database, and only 22 field inspectors, the COGCC has limited capacity to ensure these reports identify all infrastructure within the floodplain.

FEMA Floodplain Gaps

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maintains a national map of the 100-year floodplain for insurance determinations that are in the process of being digitized. These maps show the extent of flooding expected from rain events with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. They are determined by a combination of topography, satellite imagery, and maps from local jurisdictions. However, in many portions of the western US, these mapped areas are incomplete, including large regions of Colorado. FEMA maps are also the primary floodplain data source used by industry and the by the COGCC. The map below shows the oil and gas infrastructure that is located within the known digital 100-year floodplain as of early February 2016. This map underrepresents the actual number of facilities within the floodplains due to incomplete FEMA data, but provides a clear visual of a widespread problem.

Known Floodplain Infrastructure Map

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Although FEMA is routinely working to update their dataset, large regions with widespread extraction remain digitally unmapped. While there is accessible floodplain info for the companies to use to determine their status and for the COGCC to verify what the industry reports, the incomplete digitized FEMA data means there is no accessible or efficient way for the COGCC to know if there is infrastructure within a floodplain that hasn’t been reported. This means that more is at risk here than we can calculate. Weld County, a Front Range county and recipient of severe flooding in 2013, starkly exemplifies this reality. In the aftermath of the 2013 flood, Weld County became a disaster zone when 1,900 oil and gas wells were shut down, submerged completely by the rushing water, as thousands of gallons of oil drained out. Until January 2016, Weld County lacked digitally mapped floodplains, and currently only 16% of the river and stream network is available.

The table below lists the percentages of oil and gas infrastructure that exist in Weld County alone that can be calculated using this limited dataset. As of February of this year, 3,475 wells of 35,009 are within the known floodplain in Weld County. Of greater concern, 74% of pending permits statewide are in Weld County – 5% of those in the known floodplain – indicating either an underestimation of flood risk, a blatant disregard of it, or both.


Flooding in the Future

According to the CO Climate Change Vulnerability Study, the state expects a 2.5–5 degree Fahrenheit annual temperature increase by 2050. While this increase is likely to cause earlier spring runoff, more rain at lower elevations, and higher evaporation rates, it is unclear if annual precipitation will increase or decrease with rising temperatures. This uncertainty makes it difficult to know if increased flood risk is in the future. Current flood risk, however, is a known threat. The CO Department of Public Safety’s Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan calculates, based on historical events, that Colorado experiences a flood disaster once every five years. This means that each year, there is a 20% chance a major flood will occur. With incomplete data, limited oversight, and uncertain future trends, oil and gas flood contamination risk is incalculable – and on the Front Range, the majority of Colorado’s population, extractive industry, and environment are in danger.

Dealing with the Unknown

The unknown risks of climate change and known risks of historical flood trends emphasize that identifying oil and gas infrastructure in floodplains must be a high priority for the COGCC. These realities also put into question whether or not future infrastructures should be permitted within floodplains at all. In April, floodplain infrastructure will be identified by the industry and when these data are made available, a more accurate analysis of risk will me made.

Feature photo shows a flooded well and toppled oil storage tanks in Weld County, Colorado 2013 – by Rick Wilking/Reuters.

Largest Coastal Spill in 25 years [in California]

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

The Santa Barbara Pipeline Spill

On May 19, 2015, just 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, a heavily corroded section of pipeline ruptured spilling upwards of 101,000 gallons. The pipeline was operated by Plains All American LLC, based out of Houston Texas, and was used to move crude oil from offshore rigs to inland refineries. The spill occurred on a section of pipe running parallel to the coastline at a distance of only a tenth of a mile to the ocean. As a result, the ruptured oil traveled through a drainage culvert and onto the beach where 21,000 gallons spilled into the ocean. The oil spread into a slick that covered 4 miles of coastline, and has since spread to southern California beaches more than 100 miles to the south. Santa Barbara county officials immediately closed two beaches, Refugio and El Capitan, and southern California beaches were also closed June 3rd through June 5th. Commercial fishing has been prohibited near the spill, and nearly 300 dead marine mammals and birds have been found, as well as dead cephalopods (octopi).1

Mapping the Impacts

Santa Barbara 2015 Oil Spill at Refugio Beach. To view the legend and map full screen, click here.

The map above shows details of the oil spill, including the location on the coastline, the extent that the spill traveled south, and the Exxon offshore platforms forced to suspend operations due to their inability to transport crude to onshore refineries.

The dynamic map also shows the wildlife habitats that are impacted by this oil spill, putting these species at risk. This area of Central California coastline is incredibly unique. The Santa Barbara Channel Islands are formed and molded as colder northern swells meet warmer southern swells, generating many temperature gradients and microhabitats able to support an incredible amount of biodiversity. Many species are endemic to only this region of the California coastline, and therefore are very sensitive to the impacts of pollution. In addition to the many bird species, including the endangered Western Snow Plover and Golden Eagle, this area of coastline is home to a number of whale and porpoise species, and, as seen in the map, the Leatherback Sea Turtle and the Black Abolone Sea Snail, both threatened.

Santa Barbara Channel_10.7.13

Figure 1. Offshore Drilling Near Santa Barbara from 2013

For California’s harbor seal populations, this kill event reinforces existing environmental pressures that have been shrinking the seal and sea lion (pinniped) communities, increasing the threat of shark attacks on humans. For the potential impact that this could have on California’s sensitive sea otter population, see FracTracker’s recent story on the West Coast Sea Otter.

In 2013, The FracTracker Alliance collaborated with the Environmental Defense Center on the report Dirty Water: Fracking Offshore California. The report showed that much of the offshore oil is extracted by hydraulic fracturing (Fig 1.), and outlined the environmental impacts that would result from a spill of this magnitude.

Clean Up Efforts

Workers are currently cleaning the spill by hand using buckets and shovels. These old fashioned techniques may be painstaking, but they are the least invasive and they are necessary to ensure that there is not additional damage to the sensitive ecosystems. Even scraping the coastline with wire brushes and putty knives cannot remove the stain of oil that has been absorbed by porous rocks. The oil will only wear away with time as it is diluted back into the ocean. Costs of the clean-up response alone have already reached $92 million, which is being paid by Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline. There have not been any reports yet on the financial impacts to the recreational and fishing industries.2

Prevention Opportunities

By comparison, the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 was estimated at 200 million gallons. After over 45 years, nearly a half decade, one would think that advancements in pipeline engineering and technology would prevent these types of accidents. Plains All American, the pipeline operator states that their pressure monitors can detect leaks the size of pinholes. Why, then, did the ruptured pipe continue to spill crude for three hours after the public was notified of the incident?

This section of pipeline (falsely reported by the media to be abandoned) was built in 1987. At capacity the pipeline could transport 50,400 gallons of oil per hour, but during the time of the spill the pipeline was running under capacity. Pipeline inspections had occurred in 2012 and in April of 2014, just weeks prior. The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration said testing conducted in May had identified extensive corrosion of the pipeline that required maintenance. It is possible that this incident is an isolated case of mismanagement, but the data tell a different story as this is not an isolated event.

Plains released a statement that a spill of this magnitude was “highly unlikely,” although this section of the pipeline has experienced multiple other spills, the largest of which being 1,200 gallons. Just a year prior, May 2014, the same company, Plains, was responsible for a 19,000 gallon spill of crude in Atwater Village in Los Angeles County. According to a joint hearing of two legislative committees, the operators, Plains did not meet state guidelines for reporting the spill. According to the county, the operator should have been able to shut down the pipeline much faster.3 It is not clear how long the pipeline was actually leaking.

NASA Spill Visualizations

As a result of the spill and to assist with the clean-up and recovery, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA has developed new technology to track the oil slick and locate contamination of beaches along the coastline. The JPL deployed a De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft carrying a unique airborne instrument developed to study the spill and test the ability of imaging spectroscopy to map tar on area beaches. What this means is that from aircraft special cameras can take pictures of the beach. Based on the nature of the light waves reflecting off the beach in the pictures, tar balls and oil contamination can be identified. Clean-up crews can then be dispatched to these areas. On their website, NASA states “The work is advancing our nation’s ability to respond to future oil spills.”4 A picture generated using this technology, and showing oil contamination in water and on the beach, is shown below.



  1.  Maza, C. 2015. California oil spill: Regulators, lawmakers scrutinize company response. Christian Science Monitor. Accessed 7/1/15.
  2. Chang, A. 2015. Workers clean up oil spill on California beaches by hand. The Washington Times. Accessed 7/5/15.
  3. Panzar, J. 2015. Official says pipeline firm violated state guidelines for reporting Santa Barbara spill. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 7/6/15.
  4. NASA. 2015. NASA Maps Beach Tar from California Oil Pipeline Spill. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology. Accessed 7/7/17.

Regulatory Gaps for Train Spills?

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

On January 26, 2015, the Columbian, a paper in Southwestern Washington state, reported that an oil tanker spilled over 1,600 gallons of Bakken Crude in early November 2014.  The train spill was never cleaned up, because frankly, nobody knows where the spill occurred. This issue highlights weaknesses in the incident reporting protocol for trains, which appears to be less stringent than other modes of transporting crude.

Possible Train Spill Routes

To follow the most likely train route for this incident, start at the yellow flag, then follow the line west. The route forks at Spokane – the northernmost route would be the most efficient. View full screen map

While there is not a good place for an oil spill of this size, some places are worse than others – and some of the locations along this train route are pretty bad.  For example, the train passes through the southern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana, the scenic Columbia River, and the Spokane and Seattle metropolitan areas.

Significant Reporting Delay

The Columbian article mentions that railroads are required to report spills of hazardous materials in Washington State within 30 minutes of spills being noticed. In this case, however, the spill was apparently not noticed until the tanker car in question was no longer in BNSF custody. Therefore, relevant state and federal regulatory agencies were never made aware of the incident.

Both state and federal officials are now investigating, and we will follow up this post with more details when they are made available.

Jay Bee Lisby Pad Inspection – Sept. 11, 2014

I regularly visit the Jay Bee Lisby pad on Big Run in Tyler County, WV. Given its significant and continuing problems over the past year, and also due to the total absence of any environmental enforcement, it is important to give all those JB well pads extra attention. In fact, I happened upon a few new issues during my recent visits and site inspections on Sept. 11, 2014 and again on Oct. 1st.

There seems to be an effort by Jay-Bee to literally bury their evidence in a ditch along their poorly constructed well pad. New dirt has recently been put into the low area along the jersey barriers (photo above). It appears that they are trying now to build some type of well pad, whereas most drillers usually build a proper well pad before they drill the wells.

An additional issue is the orange fluid pouring out of the well pad (photos below). While I have conducted my own sampling of this contaminant, regulatory sampling should be conducted soon to find out the nature of this fluid and its source from the Jay Bee Lisby pad.

Orange Liquid Seeping from Lisby Pad

Orange Liquid Close Up

Given the many spills at this pad, this issue is not surprising. However, we still need to find out what this is, as it will not be going away on its own. JB should not be allowed to bury its evidence before they are required to test and reclaim the whole area.

Please keep in mind that the law might allow a driller to force a well pad on a land owner to recover the gas, and to also locate it next to a stream, but it does not give them the right to contaminate and pollute private property – which has been done here numerous times.


Readings from conductivity meter

When I sampled the fluid from the puddle below the orange stream and tested its conductivity, the meter read ~2.34 millisiemens – or 2340 microsiemens (photo right).

The orange fluid continues to flow under the fence and beyond their limits of disturbance. However, given the wide area covered in sludge after the January explosion, it is hard to say where their limits of disturbance actually stop.

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles here.

US Pipelines Incidents Are a Daily Occurrence

Recently, there has been a lot of attention focused on the Mayflower, Arkansas pipeline failure that resulted in a massive oil spill, particularly as it comes at a time when discussions of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project are once again heating up.  However, the situation is far from unusual.  In fact, according to data downloaded from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 1,887 incidents in the nation’s gathering and transmission, distribution, and hazardous liquids pipelines between January 1, 2010 and March 29, 2013, or an average of 1.6 incidents per day.

Pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 3/29/2013.

Pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 3/29/2013. Data Source: PHMSA.

Obviously, not all of these failures are on par with the massive spill in Mayflower, and it should be noted that there are a variety of reasons for these lines to fail.  Some of these reasons, such as excavation activity in the vicinity of a pipeline, are not necessarily the fault of the pipeline’s operator.  The fact that these incidents are commonplace, however, is not one that can be dismissed.

Pipeline incidents in the United States from 1/1/2010 through 3/29/2013. Source: PHMSA.  Red Triangles represent incidents leading to fatalities, and yellow triangles represent those leading to injuries.  To access the legend and other controls, click the “Fullscreen” icon at the top-right corner of the map.

It is clear from the map that there a few data entry errors, as a few of the data points draw in locations that aren’t even in the jurisdiction of the United States. However, each entry also contains a city and state that the incident is associated with, and for the most part, the data seem to be fairly reliable.

What’s the Impact of One Spill?


Most of what I post on this site has to do with numbers: Pennsylvania’s 9,370 violations in less than four years; which drilling operators have the most violations per well; Marcellus Shale wells are 1.5 to 4 times more likely to have violations than conventional wells; and so on.

But of course, numbers only tell part of the story of the impact of gas drilling. It doesn’t really even begin to explain what a single violation means to people who live near these wells. The best way to get that qualitative information is to read the stories of the people who live there. What follows is a first-hand account from Bonnie Burnett of Bradford, PA.

To Whom It May Concern or Who Cares:

My husband and I own a little farm (125 acres) we planned to retire on in Granville Summit, Bradford County, PA. In March of 2009, when the drilling started in Bradford County, there were 2 spills on a well pad next to our property, that rushed down the hill side into our pond, killing all the fish and aquatic life. A deadly swath was carved from the drilling pad to our pond, killing everything. Big old oak trees to tiny peppermint plants that we planted.

A little history: Before Chesapeake started drilling my husband wrote to DEP and asked them the protect our little pond and our property. We saw how they were installing the drilling pad, cutting down over 5 acres of forest and trying to burn the stumps, to no avail, then burying the unburned stumps. Hauling tons of fill and crushed stone to make the pad…..on and on.

Then there was an fracking spill, all noted and recorded -(Chesapeake called it a
human error) causing about 50,000 gallon of second hand fracking water to flow through the woods, downslope into our pond and over the breast of the pond, down into the wetland and into the little creek that flows into the town of Towanda. Two weeks later there was an acid spill of approximately 600 gallons of hydrocholoric acid, all noted and recorded, that again flowed through the pad and seeped through the woods and into our pond. I’m not sure if they labeled this a human error or an accident!

From that date to today, after every rain event water from their pad flows into our pond. On 12/2/10 after a rain storm, water from their pad was flowing across their property into our pond at approximately 95 gal per min., as per their engineer report. After hundreds of telephone calls, on our part, and meetings with Chesapeake and a lot of promises-guess what-it’s winter and the ground and pond is frozen. To top it all off, our well water has been contaminated also. DEP send us a letter and told us not to ingest our well water. Oh well. Chesapeake is making money and the politicians are lining their pockets and are happy and OUR (your and mine) water is being contaminated!!!! I don’t know how old you are and I really don’t care, my husband and I are in our 60’s, but my little grandbabies are the ones I am really concerned about. If the water is
contaminated there will be no life. No one seems to understand that. Life needs water!!

By the way, my husband has had several meetings with DEP, EPA, CNN, CBS, the BBC, PBC (you can find them all on the internet) Guess what-they all say the same thing- This can’t be happening!  I’m one of the first ones to admit, I do NOT want more rules and regulations from the government. However, when a big powerful money laden company comes and starts to destroy our countyside and starts to pollute our water, then it’s time for some regulations. The average AMERICAN, who works and gives everything for our country and wants to be safe, needs to have someone help protect us.

You now know some of the mess we have acquired from a huge money making endeavor, a company that happens to be owned by some foreign country and they are laughing all the way to the bank!!

Respectfully submitted,

Bonnie Burnett

If you or anyone you know has first hand stories about gas drilling, send it to me and I will share it with our readers. We are interested in hearing your stories.