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How to Kill the Spill

Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North Dakota

Last week, 20,600 barrels of oil sprayed across a North Dakota wheat farm, leaking from a rupture in a 6-inch diameter pipeline. Earlier this year a broken pipe spewed 5,000 barrels into a suburban Arkansas neighborhood. For environmentalists and oil executives alike, this is unacceptable. It’s bad for the environment, bad for business, and bad for the oil industry’s image. The question becomes: what should be done about this?

First, it’s clear that pipeline operators need to ramp up their monitoring efforts. Prevention should be the industry’s goal, but in the case of the North Dakota spill, the typical monitoring process—sending a robot colloquially called a “dirty pig” down the pipe to check for damage—couldn’t work because the pipeline was too narrow. The Arkansas spill happened when a seam that had been connected by an outdated welding technology split. But research is already underway into how to shore up these dated welds and how to monitor narrow-bore pipes. The WSJ reports:

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has doled out research-and-development grants for $7.8 million this year, higher than in any year since 2008, according to federal data. Almost 40% of the funds are earmarked for projects to improve companies’ ability to find flaws in their pipelines….

The agency last month gave an $800,000 grant to the Pipeline Research Council International, an industry group, to evaluate current methods of inspecting pipelines from the inside and improving on them…The group, which will contribute about $1 million of its own to the effort, plans initially to focus on pipes manufactured before 1970 that are formed with the same kind of weld as the Exxon pipeline that failed in Arkansas….

Two new research projects are focused on pipelines too narrow to be inspected by smart pigs and seek to develop electromagnetic sensors to detect cracks.

Technology has a way of fitting more computing power in smaller spaces, so in time researchers might produce a dirty pig capable of traveling down narrower pipes. Continuing to fund pipeline research will ultimately reduce supply chain disruptions and minimize environmental risks.

Which brings us to the second thing we need to do: put pipeline safety in perspective. The knee-jerk green reaction—to stop shipping oil by pipeline—has driven the opposition to the Keystone XL project, but like many a green policy position, it’s nonsensical. The oil will be shipped one way or another; the demand is there, as are the profit motives. Pipelines are the best option, for the simple fact that they spill less than trains or trucks do. The Association of American Railroads estimates that trains spill 2.7 times more often, and the Manhattan Institute says they spill 33 times more than pipelines.

Of course, that doesn’t excuse pipeline operators from responsibility. We can do better, we need to do better, and it looks like researchers are figuring out how to make that happen.

[Construction workers specializing in pipe-laying work on a section of pipeline on July 25, 2013 outside Watford City, North Dakota. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.]

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  • Reticulator

    Identifying a problem is not a binary issue. It’s not a matter of sending a pig down a line and getting back a binary value of OK or not OK. There are also judgment calls to be made, which is what happened with the Enbridge spill near where I live.

    Also, the frequency of spills is not the only metric to use. There is also the issue of how bad the damage is when there is a spill. A railroad tank car can spill only so much.

    The damage could be limited in pipelines if more shutoff valves were required. But if more shutoff valves were added, would the economics still favor pipelines?

    • Andrew Allison

      Identifying a problem (as opposed to proposing a solution) typically consists of a binary decision, namely, is it broken or not?

      Presumably, pigs deliver enough bacon (sorry, it was irresistible!) in the form of problem anticipation to justify their cost. In other words, they are part of the maintenance tool kit.

      The problem in this specific case is that (I’m truly sorry!) flying the pig just might have spotted the problem.

      • Reticulator

        As I understand it, in the case of our Enbridge pipeline, the pig flew and spotted cracks, which were then deemed not to require action.

        • Andrew Allison

          Even worse, since the red flag was ignored! One might speculate why, but the (binary) fact is that they saw a potential problem and decided not to act [grin].

  • Boritz

    The knee-jerk green reaction—to stop shipping oil by pipeline—has driven the opposition to the Keystone XL -VM
    Exactly. What is called for is the same calm and positive faith that sustains a belief in global warming with ten years of no warming.
    Applied in the same way to piplelines, ten years of pipeline disasters (and the recent GW data is a disaster for some) would lead to nary a conclusion that pipelines should be abandoned.

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