On Tuesday morning, May 19, 2015, something happened to an onshore pipeline belonging to Plains All American Pipeline Company, LP., near Santa Barbara, CA. Approximately 2,500 barrels of crude oil was released from what has been reported to be a break in that pipeline. The oil flowed into a nearby storm drain culvert that went under California Highway 101 and made its way to Refugio Beach, contaminating both the beach and the Pacific Ocean.
The beach, its campground, and nearby El Capitan beach have been evacuated and closed, traffic has been disrupted, and a massive onshore and offshore cleanup of the area is currently underway. Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency the day after the spill. All of this has made for a memorable Memorial Day weekend for many, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
As reported by the Santa Barbara Independent, Plains pipeline operations director Rich McMichael said that employees had noticed a pressure anomaly in the pipeline and gave the following timeline of events:
“At 10:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, we experienced some mechanical issues at our Las Flores pump station on line 901 to Gaviota, causing the pipeline to shut down. We started the pumps at 10:55 a.m. Pacific Time, but were still having trouble with our pumping units.
“The pump at our Sisquoc Station went down at 11:15 a.m. and the operator in our control center shut the pipeline down at 11:30 a.m. At 12:30 p.m., we received a call from a local first responder reporting an odor in the area. We immediately dispatched a Plains employee to the pipeline to make a visual inspection, and he confirmed the release at 1:30 p.m.”
Exactly what happened to the pipeline and why it happened have not been officially determined yet. The broken piece of pipeline was ordered removed and sent off for metallurgical testing by government authorities. The results of that testing may not be available for several weeks.
However, a review of several media reports, statements from the pipeline owner, government officials, other oil company representatives, and others has revealed some interesting responses and tidbits of information that all will be factored into explaining the event, minimizing the chances of it happening again, and determining the ultimate responsibility, fines, and resultant costs. It may also help to influence the future of energy development and usage in Santa Barbara County and elsewhere.
Links to the bulleted items are shown below.
Plains All American Pipeline Co., LP:
- “Safety and environmental responsibility are core values to Plains.”
- The company has, “…implemented several programs that are above and beyond those required by federal regulation.”
- As evidence of the above, Plains said the company exceeded the federal requirements for the pipeline in question by inspecting it “…two times within the last three years.”
Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA):
- Said that its members are always concerned when such accidents happen and added that they, “…have numerous programs and procedures designed to prevent such occurrences.”
Apparently, something in that latter statement is incorrect because a spill of 105,000 gallons of crude oil into the beach and ocean was not prevented.
The statements by Plains and WSPA offer a stark contrast to what has been reported by other media. For example, the casual reader may assume, based on those statements, that such an important pipeline, located so near to the ocean, would have automatic shut-off valves should something go wrong with the pipeline.
Santa Barbara Independent, (May 22, 2015 update of an earlier story):
- Plains not only did not install an automatic shutoff system (known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, or SCADA), but also successfully fought off the County’s attempt to require it when the pipeline was originally permitted.
- An ironic fact is that the above permitting effort was assisted by an aide to former Santa Barbara County Supervisor Bill Wallace. The aide resigned to accept a position with Plains, successfully helping the company obtain its permits. (Wallace was noted for his fervent opposition to oil development in the county.)
- The subject pipeline is the only one in the entire county that is not equipped with such a system, which can detect leaks as small as 20 barrels of oil over a 20 hour period. (The May 19 spill reportedly happened over the course of only a few hours.)
- EPA ordered Plains to pay $41 million in remediation costs associated with 10 pipeline spills in four other states between 2004 – 2007 involving total spills of 6,510 barrels (273,420 gallons) of crude oil.
Additionally, contrary to Plains’ statement about its efforts to ensure the safety and reliability of its pipelines, a different picture was painted by others.
Los Angeles Times:
- Plains has an extensive history of safety and reliability problems with its equipment.
- Federal records show that Plains had 175 violations of safety & maintenance requirements since 2006.
- Plains’ rate of incidents per mile of pipe is more than three times the national average.
- Of over 1700 pipeline operators shown in federal records, only four of them have had more violations than Plains.
- Since 2006, Plains’ facilities spilled over 688,000 gallons of hazardous liquid and caused more than $23 million in property damage.
Another ironic fact is that onshore processing and shipment of crude oil in pipelines in Santa Barbara County was the result of intensive efforts on the part of the County and those concerned about the environment. The oil industry was forced to abandon its existing and planned operations that would process crude produced offshore on floating storage & treatment vessels and then ship the oil to refineries via ocean going tankers. Instead, crude oil produced offshore was required to be piped to facilities onshore for processing and shipment by pipeline. Notwithstanding the fact that this onshore pipeline has ruptured and impacted the environment, had this effort not been made, many would argue that an even larger spill offshore may very well have happened. The results of such a spill could have been even more catastrophic.
In the meantime, this latest incident near the spot that ignited the environmental movement in 1969 with the Union Oil blowout has once again raised a firestorm of criticism. However, as the statement below shows, it is also being used by some as a call to end the nation’s dependence upon fossil fuels because a lot has changed since then:
Paul Reis, Board Emeritus of Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council (CEC):
“People have been asking me how the Refugio Oil Spill compares to the 1969 Santa Barbara spill. Really, any spill of this magnitude is a tragedy, and the location on the Gaviota Coast could not be worse.”
“But one major difference is that 45 years ago, we had no idea how to break our addiction to oil. Now we do. Now we have both the policy tools and the technology to make this transition.”
“What was a pipe dream for us in 1969 – a real alternative to our dependence on oil — is now within reach. We are at a pivotal moment in history, and the Refugio Oil Spill is a grim reminder of the necessity of moving renewable energy to the forefront. This could be the final catalyst to motivate the Santa Barbara citizenry to tap its environmental legacy and move away from oil now.”