Everything is Awesome!…. or is it?

This recent tweet by Brigham McCown (former head of PHMSA in the Bush Administration) about rail and pipeline safety gave us pause. It praised government agency oversight and questioned congressional initiatives to push for greater safety, begging the question: Are we missing something? Should we as a country really be patting ourselves on the back for successful pipeline safety improvements?

In a more recent tweet he stated that “#pipelines have decreased accidents by 50%” – the same thing that PHMSA’s Deputy Director for Governmental, International and Public Affairs told media in Montana when talking about the recent spill into the Yellowstone River. That would be great if it were true, but it’s just not.

If only we were more technologically advanced, we would create an animation of Mr. McCown and the heads of the large oil and gas industry groups singing “Everything is Awesome” and touting the ‘continuous improvement’ and ‘excellent job reducing incidents, spills, injuries’ that have apparently happened of late while the rest of us have been watching oil spill into the Yellowstone and fireballs threaten more pipeline neighbors.

We would love to agree with Mr. McCown, but cannot reconcile his sentiment with what we know about the reality of pipeline safety today and the recent record of pipeline failures. He specifically called into question the actions of Congressman DeFazio, later suggesting he should “stand down.” Before we start in on our own perspective, here is part of what Peter DeFazio had to say to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Inspector General (this excerpt comes after discussion of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) slow action and failure to issue new rules regarding safety of rail tank cars):

In multiple pipeline accident investigations over the last 15 years, the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] has identified the same persistent issues, most of which PHMSA has failed to address on its own accord. Each and every time, Congress has been forced to require PHMSA to take action, most recently in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-90). Three years later, almost none of the important safety measures in the Act have been finalized.

Finalizing these rules is imperative; our Nation’s vast 2.5 million-mile pipeline network is aging. According to PHMSA, more than 50 percent of these pipelines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. The potential for catastrophic accidents is not a matter of if, but when. DOT must be prepared to address any pipeline or hazardous material safety deficiencies now, not just when we mandate action.

For these reasons, I am concerned with the agency’s ability to address significant safety issues and am requesting an audit of PHMSA’s pipeline and hazardous materials safety programs. Specifically, I request an evaluation of the agency’s effectiveness in addressing: congressional mandates, and NTSB, Government Accountability Office, and Office of Inspector General recommendations in a timely manner; the process PHMSA utilizes for implementing such mandates and recommendations; the sufficiency of PHMSA’s efforts to coordinate with the modal administrations and address safety concerns raised by those administrations; and any impediments to agency action.

We think Mr. DeFazio is spot-on. Not only because of what needs to be done to prevent future incidents, but also because of what has already happened. In the first ten days of 2015 alone, there were 11 reported pipeline incidents, 4 of them significant, and all of those four were from causes within the operator’s control. It is too early to know the total damage done, but we do know that one of the incidents not yet included in the PHMSA database resulted in an estimated 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into the Yellowstone River in Montana and polluting the drinking water supply for the town of Glendive, requiring emergency changes to the water treatment plant to filter out benzene from the spill.

Since 1995, the number of significant pipeline incidents has risen by 3% – going from a rolling 3-yr average of 275 (1995-1997) to 283 (2012-2014). And the most prevalent cause of significant incidents is something within the operators’ control: material/weld/equipment failure. In fact, according to PHMSA data, the majority of significant incidents in the past 10 years have been caused by three things within the operator’s control: corrosion, incorrect operation and material/weld/equipment failure.

Operators will say that many more miles of pipelines have been installed in recent years, and they are still the safest form of oil and gas transportation. But even with the incident data normalized by miles of pipeline, we’ve still got lots of improving to do. 

SigIncPER1kmile

You will see that throughout this piece, we refer to “significant incidents.” The types of incidents are divided by PHMSA into “serious”, “significant” and “all”. Significant incidents include:

  1. Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization
  2. $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars
  3. Highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more
  4. Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion.

Serious incidents are a subset of significant incidents and only include those causing a fatality or in-patient hospitalization. And serious incidents have indeed decreased over the past 20 years, and we celebrate that. Mr. McCown and Ms. Klinger were perhaps thinking only of serious incidents when making their claims. But looking at serious incidents only does not tell the whole story about pipeline safety. In the case of the Yellowstone spills or the Marshall, Michigan spill, no one was killed or hospitalized, so they were significant incidents. The records of serious incidents will not tell you about catastrophes even of that magnitude. The difference between whether an incident is categorized as serious or significant is sometimes as random as whether someone whose house was destroyed by pipeline explosion happened to be home at the time. Had they been home, the incident would have been serious. They weren’t, so the incident was significant. The pipeline wasn’t safer just because no one was killed. They just weren’t home. If we only looked at serious incidents trends, we’d miss learning from many significant incidents and mislead the public into thinking fewer incidents were happening.

Another metric that the pipeline industry likes to tout is that 99.999% of the oil and refined products shipped by pipeline arrives safely at its destination. Wow! That is really awesome, you say, starting to hum along with Mr. McCown and the crew. But hold on. How much is that .001%, you wonder? Well, as API/AOPL tell us in their new “Pipelines by the Numbers“, 14.9 billion barrels of oil and refined products were shipped by pipeline in 2013. So that .001% works out to be 149 thousand barrels, or 6.258 million gallons of oil and refined products that did NOT make it safely to its destination.

6.258 million gallons spilled from pipelines. That’s the equivalent of:

One spill the size of the Enbridge spill at Marshall, Michigan EVERY OTHER MONTH for a year;

OR

Two spills the size of the 1999 Bellingham, Washington incident EVERY MONTH for a year;

OR

One spill the size of the Exxon Valdez every other year.

Our point (in case you missed it): It’s a lot of oil and refined product spilling and leaking from pipelines every year. “#Pipelines” have NOT reduced accidents by 50%. Things are NOT awesome. Pipelines may be the safest means we have, but they’re not nearly safe enough. And it’s Congress’ duty to call out the regulator when things aren’t good enough. That’s what Representative DeFazio did, and that’s why.

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