A Vicious Cycle: Crude Oil Pipelines Increase Climate Change, Increase Pipeline Spills

Federal regulators have issued a warning to pipeline operators on the danger severe weather events such as increased heavy rains and flooding pose to pipelines.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, “sent a warning to natural gas and hazardous liquids pipeline operators earlier this month,” according to a May 21 State Impact: Pennsylvania story.

PHMSA lists seven incidents that have occurred in the past several years, including the release of more than 1,238 barrels of gasoline into the Loyalsock Creek from a Sunoco/Energy Transfer pipeline in Lycoming County in October, 2016.

Flash floods and landslides led to the rupture of the line, which was built in 1937.

Example of severe flooding event: March 2018 and March 2019 side-by-side comparison of the Omaha–Council Bluffs metropolitan area showing effects of flooding of the Platte and Missouri Rivers. Photo By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt,

So here’s the vicious cycle. If state and federal regulators approve more crude oil pipelines, such as Enbridge Line 3, they would increase climate damage and severe storms which in turn threaten the very pipelines being built. In Line 3’s case, its environmental impact statement said the project would add $287 billion in climate damage over 30 years; part of that cost includes damage from increased storms and flooding.

It would seem northern Minnesota would be particularly prone to such damage. Line 3’s proposed route would cross more than 200 lakes, streams and rivers. As climate change increases, these water crossings will be more prone to flooding and scouring.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) needs to issue water crossing permits for Enbridge Line 3 to proceed. It’s not clear whether the MPCA will consider the pipeline’s climate impacts as it reviews the permits. It needs to do so.

Pipeline spills are a particular threat to the Anishinaabe bands of northern Minnesota who depend on clean water and wild rice for their traditional lifeways. Several bands have claimed Line 3 threatens their treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather along the pipeline’s proposed route.

Here are a few other spill-and-leak examples cited in the PHMSA warning letter:

  • On December 5, 2016, approximately 12,615 barrels of crude oil was released into Ash Coulee Creek in Billings County, North Dakota. … The failure was caused by compressive and bending forces due to a landslide impacting the pipeline. The landslide was the result of excessive moisture within the hillside creating unstable soil conditions.
  • On January 9, 2018, a failure occurred on a 22-inch transmission pipeline in Montecito California. The incident resulted in a fire and explosion and the release of an estimated 12,000 MFC (thousand cubic feet) of natural gas… It is believed that heavy rains and localized flooding contributed to the incident.
  • On January 29, 2019, a pipeline ruptured near the town of Lumberport in Harrison County, West Virginia. … The root cause investigation concluded that a landslide about 150 yards from the rupture moved the pipeline approximately 10 feet from its original location causing excessive stress on the pipe resulting in the rupture.

In related news: Inside Climate News reports that “Midwest Flooding Exposes Another Oil Pipeline Risk — on Keystone XL’s Route.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

NAPER, Nebraska — Standing on the banks of the Keya Paha River where it cuts through his farm, Bob Allpress points across a flat expanse of sand to where a critical shut-off valve is supposed to rise from the Keystone XL pipeline once it’s buried in his land. The Keya Paha flooded several weeks ago, and when it did, the rush of newly melted water drove debris, sand and huge chunks of ice deep inland, mowing down trees and depositing a long wall of ice 6 feet high and 30 feet wide across Allpress’s property.

“It would’ve taken out their shut-off valve,” Allpress said of the river flooding. “Right where they propose to put it at. And it wouldn’t have been a good thing.”

This article also has a graphic that shows how a pipeline buried under the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana, became exposed due to scouring and led to a spill of 30,000 gallons of crude oil directly into the river.

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