Texas Oil and Gas Pipelines are Causing More Oil Spills than the National Average
By Gabriella Ybarra
Scott Eustis, community science director for environmental group Healthy Gulf, said people often call the 26-year-old nonprofit asking questions like, “What is going on?” “What is being leaked?” or “Should I evacuate?”
“It seemed like it was happening too much,” Eustis said. “Why are we getting these phone calls?”
Those questions led Eustis to analyze federal pipeline data. His 2021 study for the non-profit organization Healthy Gulf found the rate of oil and gas pipeline spills along the Texas coast was 16 times the national rate.
“It confirms what we’ve personally experienced on the Gulf Coast, which is a tremendous amount of very scary accidents,” Eustis said.
The study’s findings are a grim reminder of Texas’ past with oil spills and what environmentalists say is a serious issue facing the state as pipelines get older and hurricanes continue to pound the coast.
The study compared the number of major pipeline incidents reported by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to the number of miles of pipeline in each state or region. It concluded that Texas had a “leak rate” double that of the entire nation, with Louisiana showing a similar trend.
“These are substantial events,” Eustis said. “Here in this analysis, we’re only talking about events big enough to get into the Federal Office of Pipeline Safety.”
Texas has nearly 500,000 miles of pipeline, the most in the nation, according to the Texas Railroad Commission. These pipelines help transport energy products, many of which are hazardous liquids.
The state remains the largest domestic producer of oil in the country, accounting for 43% of the nation’s crude oil production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Spills can be the result of equipment failure or natural disasters such as hurricanes, but one study found that human or organizational failures were responsible for as much as 80% of oil spills and marine incidents.
The Texas Railroad Commission investigates all reportable spills and inspects all pipelines in the state at least every five years, according to the agency.
“The Railroad Commission’s most critical mission is the protection of public safety and the environment, which it achieves through the enforcement of state and federal rules for intrastate pipelines,” said Andrew Keese, a spokesperson for the Railroad Commission.
Current federal regulations require pipeline operators to submit an incident report within 30 days of a pipeline incident or accident. In Texas, pipeline operators are required to report an oil spill “at the earliest practicable moment but no later than one hour following confirmed discovery of the accident,” according to the Texas Administrative Code.
But Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline incident investigator and president of Accufacts Inc., believes the number of pipeline incidents along the Texas coast is likely higher than what is included in federal data due to many incidents being unreported.
“There’s lots of ways that you can avoid reporting to (the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) or even to the state of Texas,” Kuprewicz said. “The regulations and the safety regulators in the last couple of decades have really improved on this, but it’s not perfect.”
The Texas Railroad Commission said it investigates complaints from landowners and others and responds to calls from local and state officials regarding pipeline spills. If a pipeline operator is found to have not reported a spill, the Railroad Commission can give the operator a citation or penalty.
Kuprewicz points out that while larger spills like the 2010 BP oil spill that dumped 134 million gallons of oil and killed 11 people at an offshore rig tend to receive the most public attention, it’s smaller spills from oil and gas pipelines that make up the larger share of incidents.
Researchers have found that small oil spills happen on a regular basis, some larger than initially reported.
“They have many more occurrences — they’re not as high profile as elite big ship losses but they’re not reported as often or as accurately,” Kuprewicz said.
While both state and federal rules require operators to monitor pipelines for corrosion and other threats, aging pipelines are also a problem. Nearly half of all pipelines in the U.S. are older than 50 years old, according to a report by ProPublica. Corrosion was the cause of up to 20% of significant pipeline incidents, according to the same report.
“We have so many old pipelines and other things that don’t get monitored closely,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “They are basically accidents waiting to happen.”
Many of the years included in Eustis’ study were years when hurricanes struck the coast, and he suspects more spills will occur as climate change results in more hurricanes and higher sea levels. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, more than 22,000 barrels of oil and other chemicals spilled at different sites across Texas.
Current federal regulations require the inspection of pipelines in areas impacted by extreme weather and natural disasters.
Low-lying areas such as the Gulf Coast wetlands, where many pipelines and oil and gas production facilities are located, are particularly vulnerable to flooding and hurricane damage. These locations are also home to many minority communities, Eustis said.
“We’re getting extraordinary hurricanes and extraordinary weather conditions,” Eustis said.“So, even though general practices around pipelines have improved, I expect that this pattern will get worse with climate change.”
Eustis said his study is part of Healthy Gulf’s work toward transitioning the Gulf Coast away from a fossil fuel economy. He said his next analysis will look into whether pipeline incidents are affecting minority communities more than others.
“We have a tremendous amount of failures of pipelines in our coastal zones, and this is a reason to stop building pipeline infrastructure in wetland areas,” Eustis said.