Plains All American Pipeline Company, L.P., has responded to media criticism of its safety record and lack of automatic shutoff valves in a pipeline that spilled 2,500 barrels of crude oil, despoiling the Santa Barbara coast and adjoining ocean waters. The spill occurred on May 19, 2015, when crude oil escaped from an apparently broken pipeline, flowed through a culvert under Highway 101, and onto Refugio beach. The affected coastline has been closed to the public and an intensive cleanup and wildlife rescue operation is currently underway.
During a press conference on May 22 and in additional information posted on its website on May 23, Plains directly addressed reports that the company has a poor safety record and offered an explanation as to why the pipeline that failed, referred to as Line 901, was not equipped with a valve that would have automatically shut the pipeline down if a problem was detected by monitoring equipment.
Contrary to what has been asserted in various news reports, Plains revealed that the 11-mile long Line 901, is, in fact, equipped with a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system which provides real-time operating information. The line also has one check valve and three remotely-controlled, motor-operated valves.
The SCADA system is monitored by operators in Midland, Texas, who have the ability to remotely start and stop pumps and open or close the motor-operated valves. Additionally, oil pumps are equipped with controls that are programmed to automatically shut down under certain conditions and all of its pump stations have pressure monitoring devices that will automatically shut down the pump station if operating pressures exceed certain maximum discharge pressures or maximum suction thresholds.
However, Line 901 was not equipped with an automatic shutdown valve because, unlike their usage in pipelines handling compressible gases, Plains believes they are not appropriate for incompressible fluids such as crude oil. According to the company statement, an automatic valve shutoff in the pipeline could have the unintended result of pressuring a line beyond its maximum operating pressure and causing a failure.
As a result, the company believes that it is safer to have the shutdown of the line in the hands of controllers than to have a computer automatically shut the line down.
Notwithstanding the above explanation, the company failed to address media reports that Line 901 is the only one of its kind in Santa Barbara County without an automatic shut-down valve. According to those reports, other oil companies in Santa Barbara County, with similar crude oil pipelines, do have automatic shutdown valves in their pipelines and have apparently operated without a similar, significant spill or other problems.
As to the company’s safety record, Plains admitted that the media has accurately reported that the company has had 175 reportable incidents since 2006 and that it ranks fifth in that regard amongst all of the companies reporting across the country. The company explained that away by noting that it is approximately 10 times larger than 92 percent of the other companies and that 99 percent of them were not only smaller than Plains, but also had less than half the number of miles of pipeline that Plains does.
However, the company’s explanation made no mention of other reports that the rate of incidents per mile of pipeline for Plains, which normalizes the differences in company size and miles of pipeline, was still three times higher for Plains than the national average.
The company went on to say that over 50 percent of the 175 reported incidents involved less than 5 barrels (210 gallons) of liquid and that 26 of those were reported as 0 barrels because the government rounds down to zero anything less than 21 gallons (which is less than half of a 42 gallon barrel). Despite this characterization of the spills as negligible, the volume spilled could still have been significant. Assuming a worst case of 20 gallons for those 26 spills, the total amount spilled in all of those incidents could have been as much as 520 gallons, amounts which could have had adverse environmental effects despite the relatively small volume.
More information on the current status of the cleanup may be found at the Refugio Response Joint Information Center.