The Problems With Oil and Gas Pipelines

The 2010 crude oil spill on the Kalamazoo River, Michigan, was one of the costliest in history. Bill Pugliano/Getty Image News

Pipelines provide a transportation conduit, above or below ground, for hazardous products at considerably lower cost than alternative means by road or rail. However, can pipelines be considered a safe way to transport these products, including oil and natural gas? Given the current attention on high profile pipeline projects like Keystone XL or Northern Gateway, an overview of oil and gas pipeline safety is timely.

There are 2.5 million miles of pipeline crisscrossing the United States, managed by hundreds of separate operators. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing regulations related to transportation of hazardous materials by pipeline. Based on publicly available data gathered by the PHMSA, between 1986 and 2013 there were almost 8,000 pipeline incidents (for a mean close to 300 a year), resulting in hundreds of deaths, 2,300 injuries, and $7 billion in damages. These incidents add up to an average of 76,000 barrels of hazardous products a year. The majority of the spilled materials consisted in oil, natural gas liquids (for example propane and butane), and gasoline. Spills can create significant environmental damage and pose health risks.

What Causes Pipeline Incidents?

The most common causes of pipeline incidents (35%) involve equipment failure. For example, pipelines are subject to external and internal corrosion, broken valves, failed gaskets, or a poor weld. Another 24% of pipeline incidents are due to rupture caused by excavation activities, when heavy equipment accidentally strikes a pipeline. Overall, pipeline incidents are most common in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, all states with considerable oil and gas industry. 

Are Inspection and Fines Effective?

A recent study examined pipeline operators who were subject to state and federal inspections, and tried to determine whether these inspections or subsequent fines had an effect on future pipeline safety. The performance of 344 operators was examined for the year 2010. Seventeen percent of the pipeline operators reported a spill, with an average of 2,910 barrels (122,220 gallons) spilled. It turns out that federal inspections or fines do not appear to increase environmental performance, violations and spills are just as likely afterwards.

Some Notable Pipeline Incidents

  • February 5, 2000. An aging pipeline failure was the cause of a 192,000-gallon crude oil spill in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Pennsylvania).
  • August 19, 2000. A natural gas pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas exploded near Carlsbad, New Mexico, due to corrosion. Twelve people were killed while camping 600 feet from the blast.
  • October 4, 2001. The iconic Alaskan Pipeline, which is built above ground, was shot by an intoxicated man leading to a 285,000-gallon crude oil spill.
  • November 9, 2004. Due to a faulty pre-construction survey, heavy equipment operators were misinformed about the location of a gasoline pipeline in Walnut Creek, California. Five workers were killed after a backhoe struck the pipeline.
  • July 26, 2010. Over a period of 17 hours, a 30-inch crude oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy leaked well over a million gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The causes cited include cracks and corrosion. The crude oil originated from Alberta’s tar sands. The cleanup costs have surpassed $1 billion.
  • September 9, 2010. In San Bruno, California, a PG&E natural gas pipeline exploded and leveled 38 homes. There were 8 fatalities and many were injured.
  • February 9, 2011. For decades a history of corrosion problems and design issues plagued the natural gas pipe network in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Several explosions have occurred since 1976, culminating in a 2011 blast that killed 5 people and destroyed 8 homes.
  • March 29, 2013. A pipeline rupture led to a spectacular crude oil spill in a suburban neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas. Over 5000 barrels of tar sands bitumen leaked.


Stafford, S. 2013. Will Additional Federal Enforcement Improve the Performance of Pipelines in the United States? The College of William and Mary, Department of Economics, Working Paper No. 144.

Stover, R. 2014. America’s Dangerous Pipelines. Center for Biological Diversity.