In late September more than 865,000 gallons of Bakken oil (see map [pdf]) spewed from a pipeline onto a North Dakota farmer’s wheat fields.

Oil Boom, Pipeline Bust

The oil boom is alive and kicking in North Dakota where fracking — the technique of injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep into the Earth to liberate the fuel trapped inside rock formations — has opened up huge new reserves of oil [pdf] trapped in shale. Apparently oil spills are also kicking up a bit of a kerfuffle in North Dakota.

In August, TheGreenGrok called attention to the fact that oil spills are probably more common than you might think and may be a lot closer to home than you would want. That fact was brought home for Steve Jensen who on September 29 discovered a pipeline leak in the middle of his wheat fields.

While the pipeline, which is owned by San Antonio, Texas-based Tesoro Logistics, is only six inches in diameter, the spill covered a whopping 7.3 acres — an area equivalent to about seven football fields. How did such a small line manage to cover such a large area? Probably because no one was checking. In fact, Jensen reported that he had smelled fumes for days before he discovered it. It took even longer for the spill to be made public, perhaps because the state is not obligated to inform the public of an oil spill. North Dakota’s lawmakers are questioning the response time, and the state is looking into its spill-reporting procedures. There’s also some who-knew-what-when investigating going on.

Who’s in Charge

The safety of the nation’s 2.5 million miles of pipeline falls under the aegis of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration through its Office of Pipeline Safety.

In principle, the Office of Pipeline Safety together with the North Dakota Public Service Commission (for intrastate pipelines) handles inspection and enforcement of pipeline safety regulations in the state. But there is concern that there are just not enough inspectors to handle the increased production from the current boom. The Office of Pipeline Safety has about 100 inspectors nationwide for the country’s vast network of pipelines and only 1.5 full-time employees to review the 450 emergency response plans for 450 facilities nationwide [pdf]. Add in the partial government shutdown, and you have to wonder — I bet Jensen is wondering — who on earth was minding the pipeline store. Course, considering the numbers, even when the full government is open for business, these inspectors may be spread just a wee bit too thin. Then again, North Dakota’s pipelines carry less than half of the crude (see also here) produced in the state.

Minimum Damage? Maybe. But an Uptick in Spillage.

Fortunately, the oil does not seem to have reached the water table. Unfortunately for Jensen, the field will be unusable for several years.

Still, the spill will significantly boost this year’s tally for pipeline spills, which as of mid-September was close to 2.3 million gallons — an almost 20 percent increase over 2012’s total.

To keep this crude post short and sweet, let’s let some photos of the spill (also here) wrap things up.


  1. SAS
    United States
    October 25, 2013, 5:50 am

    ” The state is not obligated to inform the public of an oil spill”…seems like another example of the government looking out for some very narrow interests. The ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt us’ school of public service.

  2. AJ
    October 18, 2013, 12:46 pm

    In reply to Gerry Jones, “big oil” is taxed at the same rates as any other corporations. They do receive what has somewhat inappropriately been labeled as “tax breaks” for things like exploration work, which is extremely expensive and with a low success rate, in the same way that any corporation receives breaks for R&D. Although the profits are large in absolute sense, the profit margin of the oil & gas industry is far smaller than, say, Apple or Google, who also claim losses on R&D.

    Additionally, as oil&gas is frequently owned by the federal and state governments via mineral rights, a royalty, of differing percentages is collected right off of the top of every barrel that’s produced. States and the federal government do sometimes give breaks on the royalty amount (known as “royalty relief”), but this cut is taken before any profits or taxes are paid. It’s literally off-the-top and straight to government coffers.

    So, in other words, the oil&gas companies are being paid plenty enough to ensure we have the inspectors for this work. It’s the governments who are deciding where to prioritize the income they are bringing in from the oil&gas industry, which amounts to billions of dollars annually.

  3. Gerry Jones
    Beautiful Smith River California
    October 17, 2013, 2:41 pm

    When our politicians are owned by the big oil concerns, it seems taxing these same oil & pipeline companies so there would be more inspectors is a lost cause. We need oil, but it needs to be brought to market safely and without damaging the environment.