The increasingly brutal police response to protests over the construction of The Dakota Access Pipeline has pushed the debate over the safety of oil infrastructure into the national spotlight. From the beginning of their anti-pipeline organizing, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has voiced their concerns about the environmental impact of the project, pointing to the fact that an earlier proposal for the pipeline route was rejected due to concerns over potential contamination of Bismarck, North Dakota’s water supply.
Oil industry supporters argue that pipelines are safer alternative to hauling fuel by tanker trucks or freight trains. “Environmental analysis comparing pipelines to rail finds pipelines will result in fewer incidents, barrels released, personal injuries, and greenhouse gas emissions,” says John Stoody, a spokesperson for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, in a statement to CityLab. He cites an environmental impact statement conducted by the U.S. State Department comparing the impact of rail delivery of crude oil to that of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Additionally, a 2013 study from the conservative Manhattan Institute found that road transportation had an annual accident rate of 19.95 incidents per billion ton miles and rail transportation had 2.08 incidents per billion ton miles, compared to 0.89 incidents per billion ton miles for natural gas transmission and 0.58 serious incidents per billion ton miles for hazardous liquid pipelines.
Environmentalists, however, point to a lack of adequate state and federal regulation and the difficulties of maintaining millions of miles of aging pipeline infrastructure in their warnings about the dangers of spills, fires, and other accidents. And data from the federal government suggests such concerns should be taken seriously. Over the last twenty years, more than 9,000 significant pipeline-related incidents have taken place nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The accidents have resulted in 548 deaths, 2,576 injuries, and over $8.5 billion in financial damages. (Not counted in this total are thousands of less “significant" pipeline-related malfunctions.)
To better understand the extent of this damage, CityLab mapped out all significant pipeline accidents between 1986 and 2016, based on federal data compiled by Richard Stover, an environmental advocate and former research astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In the map above, you can see the locations of all significant oil and gas pipeline incidents since 1986 in which the federal government provided location data. (Note: In incident cases without longitude and latitude information in the federal data, Stover geolocated incidents based on their county data. Also, he didn’t include data from Alaska or Hawaii.) The incidents are sized bigger and shaded darker as the financial damage associated with each incident increases. Zoom in on the map to get a more fine-grained view of the incident clustering and click on individuals dots to see specifics about related fatalities, injuries, and financial costs.
Stover points out the locations reflect the footprint of oil and gas pipeline distribution networks nationwide, suggesting that wherever pipelines are extended, deadly accidents will follow. Incidents are particularly common, for example, in Texas and Louisiana, where numerous lines carry oil and gas, extracted on- and off-shore, to serve the rest of the country.
“The oil industry says this is the safer way, but that doesn’t mean this is safe,” says Stover. “Property is damaged. People are killed. There is no way to safely transport fossil fuels.”
To illustrate other dimensions of this damage, we created time lapse maps to show the accumulation of fatalities and injuries associated with pipeline incidents. Below is a time lapse map of fatalities resulting from pipeline incidents between 1986 and 2016. Incidents with fatalities accounted for 372 of all significant 9,006 pipeline related incidents that have occurred over the last twenty years. Red dots indicate incidents that resulted in fatalities and black dots indicate incidents without fatalities that could be geolocated.
The map below illustrates significant incidents that resulted in injuries (in yellow) that could be geolocated. Such incidents accounted for 1,438 of all 9,006 pipeline-related accidents.
As the time lapse shows, significant pipeline-related incidents have picked up in recent years in certain states. In Texas, for example, the effects of the state’s drilling boom may be seen in its increased accident rate: since 2009 the state has had 497 incidents, over a hundred more than in the seven years before.
Anti-pipeline activist Isabella Zizi, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, Arikara, and Muskogee Creek tribes, is an organizer with Idle No More SF Bay, which has been leading a national call to divest from financial institutions funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. “All spills and explosions—they’re going to keep happening and messing with life,” she says. “This happens everywhere, but with everyone supporting Standing Rock, people are now realizing what we have been always saying about the fossil fuel industry.”
But industry spokesman Stoody maintains that, overall, America’s pipeline transportation is safe—and the fuel it moves is crucial. “Last year, pipelines delivered 16.2 billion barrels of crude oil and petroleum products across America,” he says. “As long as Americans continue to heat their homes, drive their cars, benefit from medicine, cosmetics, food and other consumer products all produced with raw materials from petroleum products, pipelines will help America meet their needs.”
The 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline, stretching from North Dakota to Illinois, would carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day if completed. But its future is still uncertain. Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to close the Standing Rock Sioux camp by Dec. 5, but later claimed it had “no plans for forcible removal” and “is seeking a peaceful and orderly transition to a safer location," after public backlash. In recent weeks, police have used increasingly aggressive means to confront protesters, including water cannons, tear-gas grenades, and sound weapons. In response, thousands of veterans have pledged to travel to Standing Rock next week to serve as human shields for the protesters, who call themselves “water protectors.”
Regardless of what happens at Standing Rock, Zizi says he expects deadly pipeline accidents will continue to flare up nationwide. “I live in Richmond, California and experienced the 2012 Chevron refinery explosion,” says Zizi. “That was scary, living six blocks away and seeing the black smoke covering the sun. They said there’s nothing wrong with this, just stay in your house. But this is contaminating our land, our soil, our air, our water. Once things are contaminated, it is hard to go back.”