The warnings are stark, the images dire.
“If drilling is allowed off the East Coast of the United States, it puts our beaches, our fishermen, and our environment in the crosshairs for an oil spill that could devastate our shores,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a press conference last month.
And this week, the GOP-led House of Representatives is expected to vote to allow construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a $5.4 billion project that’s become the center of a bitter six-year fight between industry groups and environmentalists.
In both debates, arguments from supporters and opponents have hinged on the risk, or perceived risk, of disastrous oil spills – and not without reason.
Reports suggest the U.S. racked up more than 10,000 pipeline leaks and blowouts in the past 20 years, killing 371 people and spilling over 92 million gallons of oil and other products, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And in federal waters offshore, rigs and tankers are thought to have caused an average 59 spills a year from 1964 to 2013, which together spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil and other products into U.S. waters, the Interior Department says.
But when it comes to a grand total – just how many spills actually occur across the energy sector every year – the answer becomes as opaque and slippery as an oil slick. Despite the energy boom of the past decade, which has turned the U.S. into the largest oil and gas producer in the world, not a single federal agency tracks, confirms and analyzes the thousands of spills that occur every year on land and water.
As a result, lawmakers, advocates and trade groups – even the academic experts who spend their lives studying spills – disagree on the two most fundamental questions of the country’s energy renaissance: how many spills occur each year and whether that number is on the rise, which makes it all but impossible to determine how safe the oil, gas and chemical industries really are.
“It’s a fairly grotesque oversight on behalf of our government,” says petroleum engineer Philip Johnson, a professor at the University of Alabama College of Engineering. “The regulators have fallen down on this.”
And with apparently little interest from lawmakers or regulators in changing how the country tracks these accidents, there’s no sign of any shift soon – leaving residents, businesses and policymakers alike utterly unaware of the potential risks posed by a new well site, pipeline or train route nearby.
Every oil and chemical spill in the U.S. and its territories, whether on land or sea, is supposed to be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, a 20-person, 24-hour hotline based in the nation’s capital that logs 28,000 to 34,000 calls, faxes and online reports a year. But these are merely preliminary reports, only as reliable as the person reporting the spill, never analyzed or confirmed later, and therefore riddled with holes, errors, inaccuracies and false reports.
“We look at ourselves as the 911 center for pollution reporting. We’re not asking the questions of a homicide detective. Our only goal is to ring the bell,” says center operations officer Lt. Andrew Kennedy. “While the data’s not entirely 100 percent factual, it can give you an idea of what’s happening.”
That presumption is far from certain.
The number of reports to the center held steady from 1994 to 2014, according to an analysis by U.S. News, but many industry analysts and academic experts argue that the real number of spills actually increased – a natural result of the oil and gas boom that exploded over the same period.
Dagmar Etkin, founder of Environmental Research Consulting and the author of peer-reviewed spill reports for the American Petroleum Institute – the oil and gas industry’s main lobbying group – says her research paints a different picture: As spill-detection technology and manufacturing methods have improved and regulations have tightened, not only has the frequency of accidents fallen, but so has the amount of petroleum that’s been leaked.
“Spills have decreased significantly in all sectors (with some slight exceptions) over the last several decades,” Etkin writes in an email to U.S. News.
“There were some increases in the reporting of very small spills that made it appear that there were increases in numbers beginning in the 1990s into the 2000s,” she says. “But this is due to changes in regulations for spill reporting and also greater responsibility in reporting even the smallest spills that are under reportable minimums.”
And therein lies one of the biggest inherent flaws of tracking oil and chemical spills nationwide: The National Reponse Center spill logs are only as reliable as the people making the reports, who may not know exactly where they’re located, how large the spill might be, or what the substance is – and that’s assuming they even choose to report the spill at all.
And that makes determining even the worst offenders nearly impossible. Chevron Corp. – with 3,299 reported spills from 2003 to 2013 – tops the list, followed by freight rail operator Norfolk Southern Corp. with 2,869 and Exxon Mobile Corp. with 2,696. BP, with 2,445 reported spills, placed fourth on the list despite being responsible for the worst maritime oil spill in U.S. history.
The apparent contradictions in the data point to other issues, too. Namely, much of the information that’s often missing from the reports, from the kind of chemical or petroleum product spilled to where exactly the incident occurred to how much was spilled, is what’s most crucial for understanding how bad the damage might be.
New technology might hold some answers, but not anytime soon.
(Source: US News & World Report)