« Return to this article

Know the West

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.