The Oil Boom Produces Another Spill

by Bill Chameides | October 15th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

In late September more than 865,000 gallons of Bakken oil (see map [pdf]) spewed from a pipeline onto a North Dakota farmer’s wheat fields.

Oil Boom, Pipeline Bust

The oil boom is alive and kicking in North Dakota where fracking — the technique of injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep into the Earth to liberate the fuel trapped inside rock formations — has opened up huge new reserves of oil [pdf] trapped in shale. Apparently oil spills are also kicking up a bit of a kerfuffle in North Dakota.

In August, TheGreenGrok called attention to the fact that oil spills are probably more common than you might think and may be a lot closer to home than you would want. That fact was brought home for Steve Jensen who on September 29 discovered a pipeline leak in the middle of his wheat fields.

While the pipeline, which is owned by San Antonio, Texas-based Tesoro Logistics, is only six inches in diameter, the spill covered a whopping 7.3 acres — an area equivalent to about seven football fields. How did such a small line manage to cover such a large area? Probably because no one was checking. In fact, Jensen reported that he had smelled fumes for days before he discovered it. It took even longer for the spill to be made public, perhaps because the state is not obligated to inform the public of an oil spill. North Dakota’s lawmakers are questioning the response time, and the state is looking into its spill-reporting procedures.

Who’s in Charge

The safety of the nation’s 2.5 million miles of pipeline falls under the aegis of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration through its Office of Pipeline Safety.

In principle, the Office of Pipeline Safety together with the North Dakota Public Service Commission (for intrastate pipelines) handles inspection and enforcement of pipeline safety regulations in the state. But there is concern that there are just not enough inspectors to handle the increased production from the current boom. The Office of Pipeline Safety has about 100 inspectors nationwide for the country’s vast network of pipelines and only 1.5 full-time employees to review the 450 emergency response plans for 450 facilities nationwide [pdf]. Add in the partial government shutdown, and you have to wonder — I bet Jensen is wondering — who on earth is minding the pipeline store. Course, considering the numbers, even when the government is open for business, these inspectors may be spread just a wee bit too thin. Then again, North Dakota’s pipelines carry less than half of the crude (see also here) produced in the state.

Minimum Damage? Maybe. But an Uptick in Spillage. 

Fortunately, the oil does not seem to have reached the water table. Unfortunately for Jensen, the field will be unusable for several years.

Still, the spill will significantly boost this year’s tally for pipeline spills, which as of mid-September was close to 2.3 million gallons — an almost 20 percent increase over 2012’s total.

To keep this crude post short and sweet, let’s let some photos of the spill (also here) wrap things up.

filed under: energy, faculty, fossil fuels, fracking, oil, policy, pollution
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1 Comment

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  1. Trevor H
    Oct 16, 2013

    This spill looks pretty awful. First, bear in mind the size of the spill is still only an estimate based on surveying the site – it may have been larger. It would appear that Tesoro somehow still doesn’t know exactly how much oil they spilled. This would explain to me why the spill was undetected for so long.

    I understand not every line has sophisticated monitoring tools and leak detection software. But how can they not be able to do a simple mass balance calculation? In a liquids line the product in should match the product out within a couple of percent at all times and the terminals of the pipe must be metered for accounting and billing purposes if nothing else. I don’t know all the facts about this case, but it sure seems like a big flaw in their operations to fail to notice this much product not arriving at its destination for several days.

    The fact that they restarted this line after several years of dormancy before having the results of corrosion inspections from their pig is also very surprising to me. I understand they did a pressure test, but they just doesn’t seem adequate.

    This seems like a project rushed into service before all the proper integrity checks and monitoring systems were in place and that’s simply unacceptable. Unless subsequent facts show otherwise, I really hope to see a massive fine for this case. Tesoro is actually very, very lucky this occurred in such a low consequence area.

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