Transport of oil will never be spill-proof

By The SE Texas Record | Jun 18, 2015

By Christopher F. Jones

To a historian of pipelines, last month's Santa Barbara oil spill is a reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Since their first introduction in the late 19th century, pipelines have leaked regularly and ruptured occasionally. While it's true that improved technology and regulation have reduced spills significantly, the fact remains that there exists no such thing as a spill-proof pipeline.

Long-distance pipelines were developed in the late 19th century to compete with railroads for the conveyance of crude oil. By controlling railroad shipments, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil controlled the industry. Pipeline pioneers hoped that creating an alternative transport system would turn the tide in their favor.

These pioneers cared primarily about two things: cost and competition. As long as small spills did not dramatically reduce profitability, environmental safety wasn't high on their list of priorities.

Long-distance pipeline dreams first became reality in 1879 in Pennsylvania. Led by Byron Benson and a group of colleagues unaffiliated with Standard Oil, the Tide-Water Pipeline was so audacious that skeptical observers dubbed it "Benson's Folly."

Scores of men and horses hauled thousands of tons of pipes through the wilderness of the Allegheny Mountains to complete the 106-mile route. Engineers designed new pumps capable of pushing the oil over a 1,100-foot elevation gain without exceeding the pressure limits of the cast-iron pipes. Benson also overcame intense competitive threats such as armed teams ripping up pipes and fraudulent land claims organized by Rockefeller and his allies.

Excitement in western Pennsylvania ran high on May 28, 1879, when the pipeline operators started the great pumps and inserted oil into the lines. But within two days, the pressure in the pipes rose rapidly and the pumps had to be stopped.

A crew opened the pipeline and discovered some pieces of wood and rope stuck inside the line. Company officials suspected sabotage, but could not rule out careless workers. Though company reports do not mention the amount of oil lost, there is no doubt that significant quantities of oil flowed onto the ground when the pipes were opened. Even before the first oil reached the end of the pipeline, therefore, a spill had occurred.

Why did early pipelines fail so often? In part, because oil spills were endemic to all aspects of the industry. At the time the Tide-Water Pipeline was under construction, oil producers in western Pennsylvania were spilling an estimated 5,000 to 12,000 barrels of oil every day as gushing wells spewed petroleum before they could be capped and hastily erected storage tanks leaked steadily.

To put this into context, the equivalent amount of oil lost in the 1986 Exxon Valdez disaster was spilled every month in western Pennsylvania.

Over time, pipelines have become more reliable. But in the United States, a pipeline spill still occurs nearly every day, with over 1,400 accidents in America between 2010 and 2013. Historian Sean Kheraj has recently demonstrated that even a pipeline that has operated with a 99.999 percent success rate in Canada has averaged a spill-and-a-half a year and discharged about 5.8 million liters of oil over the past 40 years.

We could consider reverting to shipping oil by railroad - as is happening with the shale oil boom that has recently generated large increases in petroleum production at sites with little pipeline infrastructure.

The environmental consequences have been mixed. Several high-profile derailments and explosions have demonstrated that railroads - particularly those operating on old tracks - create similar risks as pipelines.

Accidents are more common on railroads than pipelines, though the average quantity of oil lost is much higher in pipeline incidents than on railroads.

Regardless of whether shipped by pipeline or railroad, a clear historical lesson is that greater public scrutiny and regulation of oil transporters reduces the frequency and severity of spills. And simply demonizing pipeline operators for their spills is a convenient way for citizens to ignore their complicity in environmental degradation. Our everyday actions, including driving cars and surrounding ourselves with plastics, undergird a world in which pipelines appear as a ubiquitous feature of our landscapes.

Jones is an assistant professor at Arizona State University. He is author of "Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America."

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