Myths and Misleading Statements About Oil and Natural Gas Pipelines
By Lois Epstein, P.E., Senior Engineer
Oil and Gas Industry Specialist
Cook Inlet Keeper
Myth #1: Oil and natural gas pipeline companies are doing everything they can to prevent leaks because lost raw materials and products cost companies money.
Facts: Petroleum and petroleum products are relatively inexpensive materials. Shutting down a pipeline to fix a leak is a costly undertaking. Installing one or more high-performance leak detection systems (multiple systems serve as backup and detect different types of leaks) can be expensive. So is testing pipelines on a periodic basis more than the legal minimum. Why should pipeline companies voluntarily pay to prevent and minimize leaks when they are not required to do so, when the cost of lost materials, cleanup, and government penalties combined generally is less expensive? In a relative sense, natural gas pipelines have a greater incentive to prevent releases since natural gas pipeline releases generally pose greater safety hazards.
Myth #2: Pipelines are highly regulated.
Facts: The pipeline industry believes it is highly regulated because the rates it charges customers in the U.S. are set by the federal government. To illustrate how under-regulated this industry is, no permits are required for ongoing pipeline operations. Current pipeline regulations also have the following deficiencies: no periodic internal testing requirements for large portions of oil and natural gas pipelines, no leak detection system performance standards for oil pipelines, no release shut-off valve siting and performance standards for oil and natural gas pipelines, only limited weld examination requirements for new pipelines, no failsafe requirements to prevent overpressurization nor preventive requirements following overpressurization, there are numerous exemptions from the regulations (e.g., rural gathering and flow lines), no ongoing reporting directly to the public (e.g., frequency and type of pipeline tests), and pipeline companies may be legally structured in such a way that they can avoid liability and penalties. Additionally, the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety’s enforcement record is dismal compared to federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in terms of pursuing violators and collecting high-dollar penalties.
Myth #3: The most common cause of pipeline spills is third party damage.
Facts: The biggest single cause of oil and natural gas transmission pipeline leaks is corrosion (external plus internal). Third party damage, or damage caused by people who are not pipeline owners or operators (e.g., damage by a backhoe), is a serious issue and the most common cause of releases from natural gas distribution pipelines, which distorts the causal data when it is presented for all three types of pipelines (oil and natural gas transmission pipelines and natural gas distribution pipelines).
Myth #4: Pipelines are likely targets of terrorism, so information about pipelines should be kept off the Internet.
Facts: Nearly all oil and gas transmission pipelines are very low risk terrorist targets because they are located underground (an exception is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline) and are relatively easy to repair. Additionally, the information the public is most interested in, such as the frequency and type of internal testing, is of no interest to terrorists.
Misleading Statement #1: Given the amount of oil transported, pipelines spill only a negligible amount.
Reality: Quantity is not always the most relevant factor. The Exxon Valdez spilled less than 2% of one day’s U.S. oil use, yet no one claims that small loss is acceptable because of where it spilled and the damage caused.
Misleading Statement #2: Pipelines are the safest way to transport petroleum.
Reality: There are no studies that show that pipelines are the most environmentally safe way to transport petroleum. “Safety” statistics are based only on human death and injury statistics. Oil pipeline releases can: contaminate drinking water supplies and crop, residential, and public lands; cause fish kills; break up wildlife habitat by creating pipeline right-of-ways; result in explosions and fires; and decrease property values because of spills and leaks. Additionally, comparing pipeline transport safety to other modes (e.g., trucks) is a false choice, because it avoids the question of whether pipelines can be made safer.