Increased Risk for All: Los Angeles crude oil spill is part of a national pipeline safety problem


#US latest: Broken pipeline provokes "knee-dip" oil spill near LA. Photo via @XrayJ76

— José Miguel Sardo (@jmsardo) May 15, 2014

As details continue to emerge from the pipeline spill that has sent thousands of gallons of crude oil through the streets of Los Angeles, one thing is all too clear – this spill is a part of a much bigger national challenge on pipeline safety. According to reports, Plains All American’s West Coast Pipeline - also known as Line 2000 - spilled about 10,000 gallons into the streets of Los Angeles. Reports have come in from residents over one a half a miles away reporting fumes and headaches associated with accute exposure to petrochemical toxins. My colleague Damon Nagami describes the spill's impacts in community in more detail here. Unfortunately, incidents like these are not uncommon – as the residents of Mayflower, Arkansas and Marshall, Michigan know all too well. According the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in 2013 the U.S. hazardous liquid pipeline system spilled over 5 million gallons in over 400 spills. Over the last decade, there is an accident on our nation’s pipeline system on a daily basis – and spill averages have gone up, rather than down, in recent years. It is against this backdrop that the Administration considers whether to allow the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to be built through some of the nation’s most sensitive water resources.

Plains All American’s West Coast Pipeline is just a fraction of Keystone XL’s capacity – on average, the pipeline moves about 50,000 bpd compared to Keystone XL’s expected 830,000 bpd capacity. However, the California pipeline appears to have some things in common with Keystone XL. The 130 mile pipeline is also used to ship thick, heavy California crudes at high temperatures from Bakersfield to refineries in the Los Angeles Basin. The California crudes are the only crudes produced in the U.S. that remotely resemble Canadian tar sands in their thickness and density.

While the tar sands industry often points to the small network of pipelines in southern California moving heavy conventional crude as proof that heavy tar sands can be moved safely, the data suggests otherwise. In fact, the only evaluations of California’s pipelines have suggested cause for concern, showing that pipelines moving heavy crudes at high temperatures have had significantly higher spill rates than pipelines moving conventional crude regardless of their age.

Similar trends are apparent in the U.S. Midwest, whose pipelines have seen increasing volumes of thick tar sands and heavy conventional crude from Canada in recent years. Accident reports from the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) shows that those northern Midwestern states moving the largest volumes of tar sands diluted bitumen for the longest period of time spilled 3.6 times as much crude per mile as the national average from 2010 to 2012.

More broadly, the Los Angeles pipeline spill is yet another example of an all too common story playing out in communities throughout the country. Even as our nation’s crude oil pipeline system sees record numbers of spills, the already understaffed federal pipeline regulator PHMSA, recently lambasted by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General for failing to oversee state pipeline inspectors, is making further cuts to its own inspectors.

It is in this context that the Administration must consider whether the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is in the nation’s interest. Not only would the project increase the expansion of tar sands production and associated climate emissions, but it would also but some of the most sensitive water resources in the nation at risks of tar sands spills. With its much larger 830,000 bpd capacity, an accident is likely to be far more significant. After all, the pipeline’s real time leak detection system is unable to detect leaks smaller than 500,000 gallons a day.  And spills are hardly a theoretical matter – TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline spilled fourteen times in its first year of operation. Taking on all of this risk so that producers can export their product internationally is a bad deal for our country, its waters and our climate. 

Photo by José Miguel Sardo