Guest Post: Are Pipeline Spills A Foregone Conclusion?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Daniel Graeber of,

Exxon Mobil hasn't asked federal regulatory authorities to restart the Pegasus oil pipeline, which burst open in a neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark.  In March, a 22-foot rupture in the pipeline spilled about 5,000 barrels of diluted Canadian crude oil into an area of marshland, though the company said it's been effectively cleaning the area with long-term remediation in mind. Policymakers on both sides of the Canadian crude oil debate have focused on issues ranging from emissions to economic stimulus. If pipelines like Keystone XL have any chance of approval, perhaps pipeline integrity should be the focal point of real policy debates.

Exxon said it was still looking into what caused a 22-foot gash to appear in the wall of its 65-year-old Pegasus oil pipeline. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said his office was pouring over 12,500 pages of information sent to his office by Exxon. Those documents were related to maintenance, inspection and safety of the 850-mile oil pipeline. Exxon, for its part, said it was combing over data taken from inside the pipeline itself in an effort to figure out what happened before the spill. That inspection, a spokesman said, could take at least another month.

Exxon already removed the damaged section and replaced it with new pipe. About a month after the Arkansas incident, about a barrel of oil leaked from the same pipeline about 200 miles north of Mayflower. The "wait and see" reaction to the Pegasus spill, and potentially the delay in the restart, may be part of Exxon's evaluation of the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Last week, a measure dubbed the Northern Route Approval Act passed through a Republican-led committee on its way to the full House. The bill would leave the fate of Keystone Xl in the hands of policymakers, who may have a vested interest in seeing that the project gets built.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., cast his vote against the Northern Route Approval Act. He expressed frustration that lawmakers were moving the debate away from renewable energy and focusing more on how best to circumvent normal review processes. Last year, the White House passed new laws that would stiffen the penalties for pipeline safety violations and mandate more inspections. That decision followed a 1,000-barrel spill in the Yellowstone River and a 20,000-barrel spill in Michigan. Lawmakers debating Keystone XL, however, have pressed for few additional assurances for pipeline integrity.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Council on Foreign Relations last week the "real" environmental issue with oil from Canada was whether it traveled through a pipeline or by rail.  One of the "real" issues has to do with emissions. Upstream, emissions work out to be "almost nothing globally," the prime minister said. Downstream, it's more likely that a train will derail than a pipeline will burst open, he said.

Talking points over pipelines are focused on economic and energy security interests on one side of the argument versus emissions and cleanup on the other. Given the legacy of pipeline spills since the Keystone XL debate began more than four years ago, the "real" issue may be the lack of debate over just why so many of these pipelines have burst open in the first place.

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Fuku Ben's picture

Yes pipelines are phallic symbols for the psychopaths

"Last year, the White House passed new laws that would stiffen the penalties for pipeline safety violations and mandate more inspections."

I bet they sought to stiffen them

General Decline's picture

If you or me dump a gallon of oil down the sewer, were going to environmental prison. Not that I advocate it. I don't. If Exxon does it, it's a slap on the wrist. Yeah, we don't live in a two-tiered society, do we?

GMadScientist's picture

Then again, your used oil doesn't serve as the primary constraining input to capitalism itself. does it?

GetZeeGold's picture



I vote we ship the oil on uncle Warren's trains and pay $5.00 gallon gas.


Oh wait....I vote for $1.50 gas and if anything leaks we'll fix it. Yeah....that sounds a lot better.

kaiserhoff's picture

For Fuck's Sake, to quote Mother Jones Tyler.

Pipelines are by far the safest and most efficient way to transport anything that flows.

If spoiled brat urban kids don't like oil, they should stick with their skate boards forever, which seems to be happening more and more.  But if you have food to eat and a warm place to sleep, some respect for the grown-ups who do the real work in this country is long overdue. 

tango's picture

I am still waiting for Tyler or the ZH sheeple for an alternative to fuel lines, oil, nuclear, etc.   It's like the idiots who get on here bitching about society choosing to buy tech toys while they're hammering on a damn computer!  They never see the utter incongruity of their actions. 

Stackers's picture

Shit Happens. The world is not a zero risk game. See ZH slogan for details.

Cars wreck

Planes crash

Pipelines burst

its what they do.


Pinto Currency's picture


Please read the last sentence again. 

I do not think Tyler and ZH are not anti-pipeline and there is an important question in that sentence.


Given the legacy of pipeline spills since the Keystone XL debate began more than four years ago, the "real" issue may be the lack of debate over just why so many of these pipelines have burst open in the first place.

viator's picture

How many pipelines burst and what was the damage?

A few facts might help the debate. My guess is that the percentage of oil spilled by pipeline failure is an infinitesimal fraction of the total volume of oil transported.

This is just another attack on the hydrocarbons, the life blood of capitalism.  It needs to be thrown in the garbage pail of history along with global warming.


smlbizman's picture

i dont think we need your view....we can just use a can of flex seal and if we order it today we get an extra can and aerogrip sprayer for free..........

Black-Man's picture

Wow... former president of GM Finance (aka Ally Bank... aka bailout city) bank rolling the tree huggers. What a twisted world we live in.



Stuart's picture

it's way too convenient to have these spills during the keystone debate.   Sabatoge for some very likely. 


GMadScientist's picture

If I ever put a hole in one of those pipelines, it'll be for a siphon; I promise I won't spill a fucking drop.


Urban Redneck's picture

Industry experience in Africa says you won't be the only one doing it, and not everyone would be so conscientious...

SubjectivObject's picture

By the token of long time, there are significant degenerations that can occur from both inside and outside the pipe.  Gas pipelines can also be subject to many time related degenerative conditions, but unless failure sparks a torch, nothing is ever heard about it.

pcrs's picture

Someone has a financial advantage from spills and that advantage is stiffening

Canadian Dirtlump's picture

as long as the us govt and regulators are bought, then everything will be worse than it should be. Even train derailments where warren buffet transports an increasing amount of crude.

doing things wrong doesnt mean they shouldnt and cant be done right. my company puts hundreds of miles of pipe in the ground every year with nary a problem.


Tortuga's picture

The pipeline burst because of:

1. Burst pressure of the pipe was exceeded.

2. 65 yr old pipe has less burst pressure than new pipe because of friction.

Whomever owns/inspects the particular pipelines; knows why it burst.


RICO all banksters and their ho politicians.

Stuck on Zero's picture

I believe that documents will show that the duct tape used to repair the pipe last time was chewed through by an Arkansas prarie gopher.


RockyRacoon's picture

I live just a few miles from Mayflower.  If you think this shit is funny just come on down here -- and bring a roll of paper towels with you.  It's all fun and games until it's YOUR house that is now worth nothing.

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

If they want to build more pipelines, then they had better make sure that these kinds of ruptures and spills are rarer than they appear to be now.

Normally I would be in favor in this kind of infrastructure.  But, these spills seem to be wholly preventable.  Time to lock someone up?

GMadScientist's picture

You ever safe-guard more than a 100 miles of anything?

That's like saying Moore, OK was wholly preventable (which it was, as long as you're okay with noone ever living there).


DoChenRollingBearing's picture



GMadScientist, you wrote:

"You ever safe-guard more than a 100 miles of anything?"

Of course not.  But, they used bad pipe in Peru (and probably here as well, somewhere...) when building their pipelines.  More preventive maintenance should be done.  The pipeline companies now even showed "pigs" (devices which they pump through pipelines looking for cracks, etc.) in an ad I saw recently.

And of course almost nothing is "wholly preventable".  I fail to see where we disagree, sloppiness leading to at least somewhat preventable accidents should be punished.


OK, I see I wrote "wholly preventable" above, bad choice of words.

Slewburger's picture

It is 100% preventable.

The problem is the companies dont spend the money to maintain and inspect these pipelines. The culture is changing, but the smaller companies that run these sections of pipeline  think  they can get away without it. The article may say Exxon but I wouldnt be surprised if they pay someone to manage the section of this thing to relieve them of liability. At that point they just audit their performance.

Urban Redneck's picture

The imperative from TPTB is cheap energy to feed cheap GDP growth. 

The irony is that that the disingenuous green weanies are also against refining the oil closer to the source, which would both mitigate the environmental risk and increase EROI, while decreasing strategic supply shock risks associated with concentration of refining and distribution capacity in hurricane alley.

tango's picture

First, nothing is 100% preventable.  What you're implying is rather than spend a modest yearly sum to maintain, "companies" (don't you like the generalizations around here?) would rather wait and spend 100 times that amount on fixing an oil spill?   Reminds me of our times - any accident is a cause for blame, conspiracy (they did it on purpose) and, of course, more laws and regulation.  

Matt's picture

First, it depends on what you are determining is preventable: pipleine breaks, or pipeline breaks due to lack of maintenance. Secondly, please provide a source that the cost of cleanup is 100 times greater than replacing an aging section of pipeline.

GMadScientist's picture

True enough that we're in vehement near-agreement, my groovy Peruvian.

The problem with wanting better "oversight" for lack of a better term, is that it tends to be self-enforced by industry or at best some government lackey that is more concerned with putting crystal meth up his nose (see Dubya administration and their analogs under Obama). Regulatory capture is all fun and parabaloid profits until they happen to royally fuck up your particular day.

Maybe that's an acceptable side-effect of capitalism, an externality we tolerate though it hurts a few, but helps the many? Maybe it's merely a side-effect of crony capitalism, but we're all okay with the Fascists as long as the trains run on time? Maybe a mixed economy which pays more attention to these rather relevant details that somehow aren't properly represented on balance sheets until they're funding trusts for cleanup would be more sustainable?

I see work that could be done to improve our lives and people who need work; this should be a no-brainer. ;)


Matt's picture

Simpler regulations, with less oversight, but a flat penalty applied evenly to every person, regardless of whether they are a poor worker, government employee, or corporation. How about just a flat $100,000 per gallon fine?

GMadScientist's picture

Because they'd soon be out of business and you'd be riding a bicycle.

Matt's picture

Or maintenance and response would become a higher priority.

Bobportlandor's picture

Hey Rocky Got Google earth?

Do search for     The Tar Pit, North La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA.

Turn on pictures. That's a lake of oil in liberal democrat country and not one person in millions of years has said they needed to clean it up.


Why don't you suggest they put a fence around the spill and charge admission.


Clinton's come from Arkansas, should be no problem.

GMadScientist's picture

Go "Bob" on a junkie's dick, Portland.

RockyRacoon's picture

La Brea having nothing to do with nothing -- thanks for the straw man.

GCT's picture

Spot on Rocky not to mention the fuckers kept telling the folks no oil got into lake Conway until some independent minded individuals started doing tests at other sites on the lake.  Lake Conway is one of the Bass Pro tour spots for fishing.  A great fresh water fishing spot.

I am in Conway Rocky.  For those that do not know the pipeline was designed and constructed to flow North with refined oil.  No one was told nor the state for that matter they reversed the flow of the pipeline and it now transports unrefined shale oil.  Of course Exxon will pay a little fine, support Mayflower which is poor to start with, and move on to the next disaster.  Now Exxon is going to buy the subdivision where the oil was every where.  I know I would not move back into those homes.  The smell on I-40 is real bad imagine what it is like in those homes.

Those that do not live here cannot even begin to imagine the damage to our wetlands.  If I knew how to post pictures I would go take some and post them here.  They are still out there cleaning up the mess.  Alot of forest is now gone so the heavy equipment could get in there. 

GMadScientist's picture

I feel for you; you're exactly right that many won't even understand the scale of the tragedy due to their failure to appreciate what was lost.

RockyRacoon's picture

We shall get to see if the AG, Justin McDaniel, is worth his pay.  The guy better nut-up or there will be some folks with torches and pitchforks at the Capitol building looking for some hide.

GCT's picture

Rocky do you live in Conway?  You stated you were close.   I imagine McDaniel is spending his time defending the new abortion law at 12 weeks.  Instead of focusing on creating jobs in the great state of Arkansas our Congress passes two new laws.  The first is no abortion after 12 weeks.  A very stupid law and the next one is another abortion bill at 20 weeks.  I can wrap my head around the 20 week bill but our Congress is like so many other political entities.  They focus on other issues instead of jobs.  Oh by the way the governement sector actually provides more jobs then the private sector in this good state lol!

RockyRacoon's picture

All this turmoil is our fault.  We find the most clueless morons we can find and put them in the Legislature.

Slewburger's picture



1. Corrosion (Galvanic or Environmental).

2. Flaw growth (Fatigue).

3. Sabotage (Buffet).

SubjectivObject's picture

The term "envirionmental" corrosion generalizes many different corrosion (fundamentally electrochemical) mechanisms that can occur due to conditons either inside or outside the pipe. The variety of the mechanisms and morphology of the associated metal degeneration weighs against your assertion of "100% preventable".  Which is not to say that additional detection and mitication techniques cannot be applied.

Flaw growth associated with the sress corrosion cracking mechanism does not require stress cycling (which is characteristic of "fatigue").  Flaw propagation from crevice or pitting corrosion requires  neither monotonic nor cyclical superimposed stess.

Slewburger's picture

I didnt realize my little joke would draw criticism for over generalizing from an ASME fellow.

SCC is ultimately environmental, but can occur under constant or cyclic stress.

Internal flaw growth could have occured regardless of environment, dependent on stress/time history only. This section of pipeline could have been 65 years old and made from dirty material (stringers, inclusions, laps, seams). The list goes on and on.

I think your statements make a compelling case for regular MP and UT inspection.

Simple corrosion rate calculations do not cut it. BP can attest to this. 


Wile-E-Coyote's picture

Pipe bursts can be calculated and estimated, it is a well known Engineering science.

Pipes will burst for a number of reasons, over pressure, erosion of the inner surface causing thinning and therefore increased Hoop stress, fatigue cracking, good old fashinoned rust equals thinning see Hoop stress.

The long and the short of it is all pipelines have a life span, once that has been exceeded all bets are off. If no remedial maintenance is done or lines replaced then pipe failures are 100% certain. Now whoever owns that land could have a good court case if they persued the facts. My guess the oil company will have that burst removed PDQ.

Get a sample of pipe the rest will follow.

jonjon831983's picture

Funny enough, in the news there have been a couple railway oil transport derailments.

Zigs's picture

50,000 gallons of ethanol down the river.  The fish aren't complaining.

Encroaching Darkness's picture

As long as we are addicted to crude, Steven Harper's right: will it travel by pipeline, rail or tanker?

Maintaining the infrastructure is not a trivial matter; regular inspection, cathodic protection and coatings, and physical protection all have their place. But in a local instance, a lightning bolt hit a metal fence post, jumped to the nearby pipeline and burned a hole in it. The leak was small enough to avoid immediate detection, and it took several days to be noticed, the pipeline shut down and repairs made. The cleanup took weeks, since hundreds of barrels of crude spilled out the (rather small, afterall; less than 3/8 inch diameter) hole.

But no one wants a spill; the Exxon Valdez was no fun for anyone. Trains do derail; millions of barrels of crude travel nationwide every day by pipeline without incident. Sort of like air travel; you're much more likely to die by car accident than airline crash, although the death toll in an INDIVIDUAL plane crash can be horrific. Overall, air travel is quite safe (once you get past the TSA).

It has to do with our perception of risk; Nassim Taleb addresses it in one of his books, I think. Bottom line: if you insist on using oil products, it has to get from Left Buttockistan where it occurs to wherever the refineries are located. Barring a perfect world, some will spill; choose how, when and where as you like.

LetThemEatRand's picture

"Overall, air travel is quite safe (once you get past the TSA)."

And if you're really lucky, no TSA's agent pipe will burst all over you during the frisking procedure.  Because it's all for the children.