Fossil fuels are the primary cause of climate change, they are also prone to spills. Such spills are toxic and they have been a consistent part of the fossil fuel industry since its inception. As long as we extract and transport oil and gas spills are a statistical certainty.
In December, Wired reported that there are about 30,000 oil spills in US waters every year. In October, Hurricane Ivan caused dozens of leaks in undersea oil wells and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of these spills will leak for decades. The Taylor Energy site will continue to leak between 84 and 1,470 gallons per day for the next hundred years. The oil slick from this spill stretches over eight square miles on an average day. Taylor Energy has gone bankrupt and they just walked away from the mess they created.
Many spills are covered up by oil companies or under-reported (SkyTruth estimates that spills are at least 13 times bigger than the numbers on record). Those that are reported are often ignored. Spills up to 100,000 gallons are classified by the Coast Guard as “minor or moderate”. It is important to understand that even small spills are deadly to marine life. They also represent a health risk for humans. Except in the most extreme and egregious cases, there are no penalties and therefore no incentives for the oil industry to clean up its act.
There are thousands of wells and 2.4 million miles of aging oil pipe infrastructure in the United States alone. In 2015 there were countless oil spills (click here to see a partial list of spills in North America) and in 2016 the sad legacy of fossil fuel industry spills continued. Here is a review of some of those spills in 2016.
On December 5, the Belle Fourche Pipeline pipeline spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil into the into the Ash Coulee Creek in Billings County, North Dakota. This is about 150 miles from Cannon Ball, where protesters are camped out in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline (President-Elect Trump has said he supports the pipeline). To make matters worse the creek has frozen over making cleanup operations almost impossible. Water supplies from the creek have been turned off. The Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. is part of the family-owned True companies, which also operates Bridger Pipeline LLC. Like almost every other pipeline company they have a long rap-sheet of spills.
On October 21, there was a pipeline leak in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, involving Sunoco, the company that is behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. An 8 inch pipeline managed by the company leaked 55,000 gallons of gasoline into a major waterway, thereby contaminating the drinking water of some 6 million people in Lancaster County. The gasoline streamed into Wallis Run, a tributary of the Loyalsock Creek that eventually drains into the Susquehanna River, considered to be the third most endangered river in the United States by American Rivers, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to protecting and preserving rivers around the country. While all pipelines leak, Sunoco Logistics spills crude more often than any of its competitors, having experienced more than 200 leaks since 2010.
On October 9, a 1.2-billion-gallon cooling pond dam at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant breached killing millions of chickens at factory farms and contaminating local waterways. The leak in the 120-acre coal ash pond in Goldsboro, North Carolina occurred just minutes after Duke Energy issued a statement claiming that the “Ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely.”
On October 2, 95 metric tons of oil leaked into the North Sea from BP’s Clair platform. The leak was 46 miles west of the Shetland Islands. There was no cleanup and a large oil slick was visible from the spill. From 2000 to 2011, there were 4,123 separate oil spills in the North Sea. Oil companies were fined for just seven of them. No single fine was greater than about $25,000.
On September 24, a fuel tanker in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire and burned for days. The tanker Burgos caught fire about seven nautical miles off the coast of the port city of Boca del Rio, Mexico. The tanker was carrying about 168,000 barrels of gasoline and diesel fuel. At the time of the incident, the Burgos was sailing from Coatzacoalcos in eastern Veracruz state to the Pemex terminal, Port Authority Director Juan Ignacio Fernandez said late Saturday.
On September 16, two states were forced to declare an emergency after a Colonial pipeline spilled more than 6,000 barrels or a quarter million gallons of gasoline in Shelby County, Alabama. Ironically the states of emergency declared in Alabama and Georgia were not associated with the environmental damage from the spill but due to concerns about fuel shortages. There was no cleanup because it was deemed unsafe for workers to be in the vicinity of the spill.
On September 7, an oil pipeline belonging to Summit leaked a million gallons of fluid containing crude oil into a creek that feeds the Missouri River on a native American reservation. The spill was the largest in Minnesota’s history was on Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation land approximately 15 miles north of Williston, North Dakota. The leak came from a saltwater collection line owned by Summit Midstream Partners LP. The spill flowed into Bear Den Bay, which leads into Lake Sakakawea, a source of drinking water on the reservation. The fluid flowed into the Missouri River and contaminated fresh water for residents in the surrounding areas.
In July, a pipeline leak near Maidstone, Saskatchewan, spilled about 66,043 gallons or 1,572 barrels of diluted oil sands bitumen into the North Saskatchewan River, killing wildlife and compromising drinking water for nearby communities, including Prince Albert.
On June 21, an oil pipeline belonging to Crimson Pipeline LLC ruptured in Ventura County, California spilling an estimated 29,400 gallons of crude oil into an arroyo that flows through the city of Ventura to the ocean. Ironically the spill occurred just after President Obama signed the PIPES safety bill into law.
On June 2, An oil train derailment and explosion along the Columbia river in Oregon contaminated drinking water. At least 12 rail cars carrying Bakken oil operated by Union Pacific derailed and caught fire. The wreck occurred in the Columbia River Gorge near the community of Mosier in Oregon which is about 70 miles east of Portland. The derailment and subsequent fire forced the evacuation of local schools and nearby homes. The I-84 highway was also closed. The rail line runs adjacent to the Columbia river which is widely used for both recreation and commerce. Residents of the town of Mosier had to boil their water.
On May 20, 21,000 gallons or 500 barrels of oil spilled from the underground San Pablo Bay Pipeline near Tracy in San Joaquin County, California. Owned by San Pablo Bay Pipeline a subsidiary of Shell Oil.
On May 12, Shell’s offshore Brutus platform spilled almost 88,000 gallons or 2,100 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill endangered corals, dolphins, whales, tuna and whale sharks. The spill in Shell’s Glider field created a 13 mile long by 2 mile wide oil slick in an area 97 miles south of Port Fourchon, Louisiana.
On February 3 and January 25 in the regions of Amazonas and Loreto, Peru at least 84,000 gallons or 2,000 barrels of oil were spilled into local waterways after two pipeline ruptures. The Marañon River, a principal tributary of the Amazon River was among the waterways that were contaminated. For indigenous people these spills polluted the waterways that are their lifeline, they provide food and water for crops and consumption. The spills are known to have killed fish, crocodiles, and plants.
There is no safe way of extracting and transporting fossil fuels. Repeated oil spills show the soulless self-interest of oil companies. Rather than repair or replace existing pipelines they invest in expansion.
As Greenpeace stated, “The long history of oil spills around the world has made one thing clear: the only way to prevent an oil spill is to keep oil in the ground.”
Three of the Most Destructive Tanker Oil Spills in History
Top 25 Oil Spills Over 1000 Tons in the Last Decade
Pipelines and Oil Spills in Alberta Canada
Offshore Oil is an Avoidable Tragedy
Two More Reasons to Move Beyond Fossil Fuels
The Costs of Offshore Drilling