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Lowballed Estimates Are ‘Status Quo’ for Pipeline Spills

freedom4kaz/YouTube
freedom4kaz/YouTube

As Canadian regulators and politicians weigh applications for major new pipelines to the east and west coasts, the online environmental digest Grist is pointing to a pattern of underestimating how much petroleum the lines lose when they leak.

Earlier this month, after initially reporting that 187 U.S. gallons of diluted bitumen had seeped to the surface from its Keystone pipeline in South Dakota, TransCanada Corporation revised the figure to 16,800 gallons—an increased of 8,900%. “It’s the kind of update that would get an engineer fired in most disciplines,” Grist notes. “But 100- or even 1,000-fold revisions are more or less par for the course when it comes to oil and other hazardous substance spills, both onshore and offshore.”

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Two years ago, an Israeli pipeline company upped its estimates of oil lost from one of its lines from 260,000 to between 600,000 and 1.3 million barrels. In 2010, BP claimed that roughly 1,000 barrels of crude were leaking daily into the Gulf of Mexico from its damaged Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, before revising its estimate to 5,000, then 40,000 barrels per day.

“This is status quo on literally every pipeline spill I’ve seen over the past seven years,” said Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb. She charged that oil companies lowball their estimates and then “slowly release numbers, hoping the press loses interest.”

The underestimates “happened with everything from Deepwater to Exxon Valdez to the Keystone spill,” agreed Oil Change International Campaigns Director David Turnbull, adding that companies have a financial incentive to minimize spill numbers. In the United States, for example, regulations only require reporting of spills greater than five barrels (210 U.S. gallons/175 Imperial gallons) per day, slightly more than TransCanada’s first estimate of its Keystone losses. But when “they actually go in and measure it, they can’t ignore the measurements,” Turnbull said.

A 2010 study found that remote sensors had identified only 5% of U.S. pipeline spills over the previous decade. One-fifth were spotted by members of the public, two-thirds by pipeline company workers. A second study last year determined that sensors were missing up to one-third of all spills.