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America’s Dangerous Pipelines

Analysis by Richard Stover, Ph.D., and the Center for Biological Diversity

A new analysis of oil and gas pipeline safety in the United States reveals a troubling history of spills, contamination, injuries and deaths.



This time-lapse video shows pipeline incidents from 1986 to 2013, relying on publicly available data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Only incidents classified as “significant” by the agency are shown in the video. “Significant” incidents include those in which someone was hospitalized or killed, damages amounted to more than $50,000, more than 5 barrels of highly volatile substances or 50 barrels of other liquid were released, or where the liquid exploded or burned.

Popular viral website Upworthy calls this video "One Time-lapse Big Oil Doesn't Want You to See."

According to the data, since 1986 there have been nearly 8,000 incidents (nearly 300 per year on average), resulting in more than 500 deaths (red dots on the video), more than 2,300 injuries (yellow dots on the video), and nearly $7 billion in damage. 

Since 1986 pipeline accidents have spilled an average of 76,000 barrels per year or more than 3 million gallons. This is equivalent to 200 barrels every day.   

Oil is by far the most commonly spilled substance, followed by natural gas and gasoline. The data does not separate oil by whether it is light crude or heavy crude typical of tar sands oil, which has proven exceedingly difficult to clean up and is the variety that would flow in the Keystone XL pipeline. 

There are a number of reasons for pipeline spills, including damage during excavation operations, metal failure, improper operation and corrosion.

Pipeline failures are concentrated in states with a long history of oil and gas development like Texas and California, but have caused damage to people, property and the environment in all 48 contiguous states. 

In most cases, cleanup of pipeline spills is only partially successful, leaving tens of thousands of barrels of oil on our land or in our water.  On average, the government’s data shows that more than 31,000 barrels of oil or other substances are not cleaned up following pipeline incidents, and in some years many more barrels are left, polluting our environment for years to come.   

Kalamazoo pipeline spill photo courtesy Flickr/k6martini