Frequently Asked Questions: Offshore Oil Pipelines

How dangerous are offshore oil pipelines?

Drilling for oil in our sensitive coastal areas puts our communities and wildlife at risk of a devastating spill, and rusty old pipelines that are the veins of society's oil addiction enhance that danger. After 20 years of use, the annual probability of an offshore pipeline failure steadily increases from 10 percent to 100 percent.  

America's Dangerous Pipelines
Line 901, whose erupture caused the Refugio oil spill, was old and heavily corroded. Photo by Bruce Reitherman/Santa Barbara County.

The oil infrastructure in the United States is getting old and presenting an increasing risk of catastrophic failures that threaten wildlife and human health. In May 2015 a badly corroded, 28-year-old oil pipeline near California's Refugio State Beach ruptured, blackening beaches around Santa Barbara and killing hundreds of birds, sea lions, dolphins, and other wildlife.

What does the data say?

Federal data show that the risk of pipeline failures increases dramatically as pipelines approach 40 years old. Most pipelines that run along coastal California and serve its offshore oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel — an area of rich biological diversity — and throughout the state were built in the 1980s, meaning that many of these pipes are now at increased risk of failure. Many of the offshore facilities are even older, built back in the 1960s.

What should be done?

While the best way to avoid oil spills is to stop drilling for oil, an obvious first step is to retire oil pipelines and platforms that have exceeded their safe lifespan. That's why the Center has petitioned the federal government to do a complete survey of coastal California's aging offshore oil infrastructure before it allows the industry to resume pumping crude through the pipeline system that failed once and is likely to keep failing. And it's why we've opposed proposals to frack offshore wells and expand production on offshore oil platforms serviced by pipelines that are more than 40 years old.

At a time when the United States is struggling to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and its overreliance on fossil fuels, it makes sense to begin decommissioning the country's aging oil infrastructure and transition to cleaner energy. What remains should be rigorously inspected by the federal government.

Is it just California?

California's pipelines present a particular problem as they approach the median age for pipeline failures of 38 to 40 years, particularly given the damage that oil spills can do to sensitive coastal environments. But this is a national problem. Data from the federal agency regulating pipelines, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, shows that 45 percent of the country's 60,155 miles of crude oil pipelines are more than 50 years old.

Federal data also show that the number of offshore oil spills in U.S. waters has increased dramatically since 2000, rising from an average of four per year from 1970-1999 to an average of 22 per year from 2005-2009, with BP being the biggest source of the spills, followed by Shell . Offshore oil drilling is an inherently risky activity that should be phased out in favor of cleaner and safer energy sources.

What about building new pipelines?
Federal data show that new pipelines also carry a high risk of spills, mostly because of faulty design or construction. The PHMSA data indicate there are more oil spills in the first two years of pipeline's life than in the next seven years combined.

It's time to retire our aging oil infrastructure and begin moving toward the clean energy future that people and wildlife — and indeed the health of the planet — require.

Watch our time-lapse video showing annual oil spills and the toll they take:

America's Dangerous Pipelines








Oiled brown pelican photo courtesy Flickr Commons/Lord Mariser