The oil pipeline leak that fouled a stretch of California coastline this week reflects a troubling trend in the nation’s infrastructure: As U.S. oil production has soared, so has the number of pipeline accidents.
Since 2009, the annual number of significant accidents on oil and petroleum pipelines has shot up by almost 60 percent, roughly matching the rise in U.S. crude oil production, according to an analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.
Nearly two-thirds of the leaks during that time have been linked to corrosion or material, welding and equipment failures, problems often associated with older pipelines, although they can occur in newer ones, too. Other leaks were blamed on natural disasters or human error, such as a backhoe striking a pipeline.
Industry officials and federal regulators say they have adequate means of gauging the safety of pipelines, but the aging infrastructure is a source of lingering concern for outside experts.
“Tick, tick, tick,” said Robert Bea, a professor emeritus in civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “Things get older. They don’t get stronger.”
Since 1995, there have been more than 2,000 significant accidents involving pipelines carrying crude oil and refined petroleum products that have caused about $3 billion in property damage, according to data from the federal office that oversees pipeline safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. That’s an average of a little over 100 per year. But after dipping to 77 in 2009, that figure has spiked to at least 121 in each of the past two years.
No cause has yet been determined for the pipeline failure northwest of Santa Barbara that spilled up to 105,000 gallons of crude oil, making it among the largest spills in the U.S. over the past two decades.