Are Pipelines Really So Bad?
Yes, They Are.

January 6, 2017

A leaky pipeline

Our Water Needs Protecting

The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies protested for months against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. They faced violence, bitterly cold weather, and exceptionally long odds, but they won anyway.

From the very beginning, the Standing Rock Sioux said that concern about their drinking water being polluted was one of their main reasons for opposing the project.

And all along, Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, assured everyone that there was no reason to worry. The pipeline was completely safe. The company CEO said, “We’re not going to have a leak. I can’t promise that, of course, but…there is no way…any crude [would] contaminate their water supply.”

So what’s the story?


The Truth is Not That Pretty

The oil and gas industry routinely claims that pipelines are the safest, cleanest way to transport their products.

And yet, pipeline leaks and spills happen all the time.

And those leaks and spills tend to cause widespread harm, to the environment and to people.

In fact, just a few weeks ago there was a massive leak at another pipeline only 150 miles from the Standing Rock Sioux protest camp. 180,000 gallons of crude oil flowed into the Ash Coulee Creek in western North Dakota.

Hmmm. It seems that, maybe, just maybe, despite the CEO’s soothing words, the Sioux’s concerns were justified after all.


Just How Big is This Problem?

The United States has 2.6 million miles of pipelines, the largest such transportation network in the world.

The first was constructed in Pennsylvania in 1879, and since then pipelines have steadily spread, crisscrossing nearly every corner of the country.

Billions of gallons of oil and gas are transported around the US every year. 70% is shipped by pipeline. 23% of oil shipments move over water, on ships and barges. Trucking accounts for just 4% of shipments, and thankfully, rail – commonly referred to as ‘bomb trains’ – for even less, 3%.


And They’re Getting Old

We’re fighting for an end to the use of fossil fuels, but for right now, it’s inevitable that oil and gas will continue to be transported. So that’s why this fact matters: More than half of our pipelines were built in the 1950s and 60s, and many more miles are even older than that.

These antique pipelines present an obvious safety risk (many old pipes are still grandfathered in under existing safety laws, allowed to continue operating despite not meeting current standards), but it’s not only the oldest pipelines that fail. Since 1986, across pipelines of all ages, accidents have killed hundreds of people, injured thousands, and resulted in billions and billions of dollars of property damage. These examples remind us that it’s time to put an end to risky fossil fuel projects.


The Accidents Can Be Devastating

Some of the accidents have been absolutely devastating to communities and the environment:

  • Marshall, Michigan: One night in July 2010, a pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan. It spewed crude, dirty oil from the Canadian tar sands for more than 17 hours before the pipeline company finally shut it down. The largest-ever inland spill ran into a local creek and eventually into the Kalamazoo River, reaching 40 miles downstream and polluting more than 4,000 acres. Even today, after a cleanup effort that cost more than $1 billion, the waterways remain contaminated. Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company at fault, wound up paying a $177 million settlement to the Justice Department and the EPA. You can guess where the rest of the money came from.
  • Mayflower, Arkansas: Back in March 2013, a 65-year-old ExxonMobil pipeline burst beneath a neighborhood in Mayflower, flooding it with thick crude oil. Oil flowed down streets, across yards, and into basements. Many residents were not evacuated, even as the air filled with fumes and stomach-turning odors, and so those who remained in their houses grew nauseated and complained of awful headaches and other illnesses. The spill ruined the neighborhood, leaving residents desperate and homeless.
  • Shelby County, Alabama: In this past September, a pipeline leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline in Alabama, sending gasoline prices soaring all throughout the South. The leaked fuel, most of which appears to have flowed into old mining retention ponds, produced highly toxic vapors, hampering the cleanup effort. Then, in November, when the pipeline company was trying to install a bypass to get the gas flowing again, an onsite accident led to an explosion that killed one worker and critically injured others.


Isn’t Anyone Paying Attention?

Thanks to the Standing Rock Sioux protests, pipelines are back in the news in a big way. So what accounts for the number and severity of accidents? Many critics point to inadequate regulation and oversight. In fact, a distressingly large percentage of leaks and spills are caught not because of highly touted monitoring equipment or industry vigilance, but because residents, passersby, or local line workers happen to see or smell the spill.


What We Need to Do

So that’s why it’s essential to keep the pressure on, to demand that our government transition to the clean energy future we all want, and in the meantime ensure that the oil and gas industry do a better job of ensuring pipeline safety. And as the water protectors in North Dakota showed us, the concerns and priorities of indigenous people and other affected communities need to be given more respect when it comes to figuring out the routes for pipelines.

But more than that, we have to continue to work toward a clean-energy future, a future where our country no longer depends on millions of miles of leaking pipes to fuel our cars and warm our buildings, a future where we stop digging up carbon and burning it. Join us and our partner AVAAZ and demand an end to the fossil fuel era.