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

Anthony Swift

Posted May 15, 2014

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#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

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Janet JMay 15 2014 05:10 PM

Thank you. Finally, someone talking real details.

JakeMay 16 2014 05:50 PM

I managed to look up pipeline spill data, and I see that your claims are false and misleading. In the 1990s, US pipelines were spilling 100,000-200,000 barrels per year. Over the past decade, spills have been 45,000-140,000 barrels per year.

With the great increase in oil production in the US, pipeline movements are undoubtedly increasing. So spill have gone down in spite of increasing shipments.

Additionally, in 2012 the industry spilled the least amount of oil ever. And data through April of this year shows the industry is on track to have a better record than they did in 2012.

JakeMay 16 2014 05:52 PM

Sorry, I forgot to post the source of the data that I found:

And at second glance, I see that the 3 year average spill volume is much lower than the 10 year average. The slight increase compared to the 5 year average is statistically insignificant.

Anthony SwiftMay 16 2014 06:20 PM

Jake: As folks looking at the links in the blog or below will see, in 2013 the United States had 401 hazardous liquid pipeline spills, the highest spill rate since 2003. The 3-year spill average is 371 spills per year compared to the 5 and 10 year averages of 361 per year.

While several tragic pipeline accidents in the late 90s did lead to a move forward in pipeline safety, we've haven't seen similar levels of progress since. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation's Inspector General have recently found significant shortcomings with the safety of our nation's pipelines and regulatory oversight.

One can take the position that it's not worth the effort to do any better. But I think it's not only worth the effort, but that there is significant evidence that there's a relatively easy path forward to reduce spills on our existing crude oil pipeline infrastructure even as we shift toward clean, sustainable energy sources.

A Proud CanadianMay 16 2014 07:30 PM

First of all I’m with you on most of this Anthony. Shut down the Californian crude industry. Their product doesn’t just remotely resemble the oilsands….. in fact that they exceed oilsand CO2 emissions. This is long overdue.

Here’s something I passed along to a fellow contributor on the site not long ago about the California oil industry:
“During the first three months of 2013, California imported slightly under 90,000 barrels of Canadian oil via train. From early January to the end of March this year, that figure topped 700,000 barrels, an increase of roughly 700% over just one year. For years the Bakersfield area has supplied its own horrendously carbon intensive heavy oil. But now they need more Canadian heavy or dilbit to replace local supply, Particularly now that the price justifies the rail transport costs to get it there.”
I go on to muse (pointedly):
“Since the California Heavy oil reserves are depleting, seems like more Canadian oil is making it to your state. The cokers need feed I guess. Perhaps more oil from the historically largest import country for California….. which is Saudi Arabia?”
Then a suggested action:
“You should Contact Feinstein, Pelosi, Boxer, Waxman et al and let them know this. Demand that the California Heavy oil imports be halted and the industry be shut down”
Then some cheekiness:
“On second thought….. Do the Koch brothers own those cokers?….. probably not. Forget about it.”
So what do you think about this Anthony? First things first and lead by example. Have your political leaders halt the heavy oil industry and heavy oil upgrading/refining industries of California. Your reserves are dropping but your process facilities are still churning away.

Also I wonder what will happen now that the oil leak is stopped. Will your political leadership:
A) Ensure the pipeline is fixed/replaced and improve oversight
B) Have the oil moved by rail or truck. Perhaps increase imports from Canada. Perhaps from your non-boycotted friends in Saudi?
C) Shut down the associated refineries thus removing the need for oil
Lets keep an eye on this and discuss later.

A Proud Canadian

A Proud CanadianMay 16 2014 07:34 PM


Did I read your response correctly Anthony?
Are you advocating safe pipelines with adequate oversight as we shift toward clean, sustainable energy sources?


A Proud Canadian

JakeMay 17 2014 08:05 AM

Anthony, which is more important? The number of spills or the total amount spilled?

Also, if you look towards the bottom of the page, you'll see a note that the reason the number of reported spills has increased is because they now require all spills above 5 gallons to be reported. Previously it was all spills over 50 barrels.

You cannot draw any conclusions from the number of spills because it is more likely that pipeline companies are simply doing a better job of reporting what they are required to report.

Also, you can not infer a "spill rate" from the number of spills. In fact, it doesn't even make sense.

The reality is that even as we move more and more oil by pipeline, the oil industry is doing a better job keeping that oil in the pipe.

The fact that you have to pretend that the number of spills is the key statistic rather than the volume spilled is testament to the fact that you know I am right.

JakeMay 17 2014 08:08 AM

A Proud Canadian,

I am a proponent of properly regulated free markets. So I guess my answer to your question would be yes.

Also, note that California oil reserves are plentiful. They just choose not to produce them. The Monetrey shale is a very big, essentially untapped formation.

Interesting point you made about the dramatic increase of Canadian oil coming to CA by rail. It's also ironic because the NRDC's official position is that there is no way to move large amounts of Canadian oil by train due to the high cost. I guess they lied to us about that, too. In fact, I think Anthony lied to us about that.

A Proud CanadianMay 17 2014 04:59 PM

Great explanation on the spills Jake. Thanks!

A Proud Canadian

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