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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...