Mapping 7 million gallons of crude oil spills

A thousand pipeline ruptures or spills reported nationwide in the past five years.

 

On May 19, a pipeline owned by Plains All American burst near Santa Barbara, California, ultimately spilling more than 100,000 gallons, or some 2,400 barrels, of oil. Tens of thousands of gallons of the oil slid into a storm drain and flowed into the Pacific Ocean.

The spill garnered national coverage for good reason: It killed or injured hundreds of birds, sea lions and other wildlife, sullied a long stretch of beautiful coastline and happened near where the notorious 1969 spill that inflamed a burgeoning environmental movement occurred. But the spill was anything but unique. Over the past five years, there have been over 1,000 crude oil pipeline leaks and ruptures reported to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Using data from the PHMSA, High Country News put together a map of every one of those spills in the U.S., from January 2010 to May of this year. The Santa Barbara spill has yet to make the list, as the cleanup — costing more than $60 million and growing — is still in progress. Nor did spills that weren’t related to pipelines, like the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. A browse through the data reveals:

• A total of more than 168,000 barrels of oil were spilled as a result of the reported incidents. That’s more than 7 million gallons.

• Many of the spills were small, releasing less than 10 barrels of oil, but some were huge. In 2013, lightning struck and punctured a pipeline in North Dakota. It leaked more than 20,000 barrels, or 865,200 gallons, of oil, making it more than eight times the size of the Santa Barbara spill.

• Lightning? Yes, lightning. It was the stated cause of four of the 1,000 accidents. Corrosion, the culprit in the Santa Barbara spill, is a common cause. Some huge spills resulted from valves being left open, while others were caused by bad seals, heavy rains and people puncturing pipelines while digging. Of all the reported incidents, only one lists “intentional,” i.e. sabotage, as the cause.

• Plains All American, the parent company of the operator of the broken pipeline at Santa Barbara, is no stranger to spills. It experienced at least 120 accidents over the five year period. And that’s not unusual: Almost every company listed experienced multiple spills.

• All of which leads to the conclusion that Christopher F. Jones, an energy historian at Arizona State University, came to and wrote about recently:

“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. ... While it’s true that improved technology and regulation have reduced spills significantly—much like flying today is far safer than in the early years of commercial aviation—the fact remains that there exists no such thing as a spill-proof pipeline. Recognizing this historical reality is crucial to crafting future policy.”

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.