Thursday, May 28, 2015
Why Oil Spills, Leaks Are Not Ending Anytime Soon
Cleaning up the Santa Barbara oil spill. Feds have now issued a cleanup order to the company.
The horrendous images of sea birds and seals gooed up with black oil on the California coast near Santa Barbara may cause many to want to lose their lunch - and with good reason. This recent underground pipeline failure caused up to 105,000 gallons of crude to spill into one of the most picturesque beaches of the coast and has threatened many species of aquatic animal. No cause has yet been determined though the spill is among the largest in the U.S. over the past few decades.
The oil covered sand and rocks with a tar-like goo and a fifth of the crude reached the Pacific Ocean turning it into a brackish scene no normal person would stick even a toe into, e.g.
But if you believe such leaks or spills can be stopped anytime soon, you are dreaming. The reason is that neither the oil industry or the government seems willing to invest the billions needed to bring the aging pipeline and delivery infrastructure up to scratch. As a point of reference, nearly two -thirds of all the leaks since 2009 have been linked to the corrosion of the material - as well as welding and equipment failures. These are problems associated with older pipelines - though they can occur in newer ones as well. The so-called failure rate can in fact depend on a number of factors.
The potential for massive failures and leaks also inheres in the fracking infrastructure now operating across dozens of states. In the documentary 'Gasland II'. Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell Professor of geological engineering. explained clearly and with easily understood diagrams, how cement can fail and methane can migrate into ground water owing to failure in fracking pipes.. Referencing one of the pipes, Ingraffea sketched the interior cement annulus of 1 -inch which is the sole barrier between the fracking contaminants and the water supply. As he observed, "what you don't want is for that cement to fail".
"Failure" includes: corrosion, crumbling, or disappearing entirely as a barrier over time. If that happens, then "what's down there" (i.e. the contaminants) can get into the annulus. For effect, Ingraffea then rubbed out the chalk barrier representing the cement in the annulus, and indicated an arrow moving into it from outside. To quote. Ingraffea:
"So now shallow gas goes into the open annulus, pressurizes the annulus, and the gas migrates into an underground source of drinking water."
Once this happens, other frack contaminants can also migrate into the water, such as benzene, toluene and dozens of other cancer causing chemicals.
In the case of fracking, Ingraffea noted that the cement failure phenomena he illustrated was "very well known and at least as long as we've been drilling wells and casing them". He added that in his view there were only "three things that are certain: death, taxes, and fracture". In the latter case, he explained that among the thousands of gas wells including those offshore, there is a probability that 1 in 20 will immediately show a failure (opening between the well casing and rock), and that meant methane migration. It also meant anything else stored in the rock, including salts, heavy metals, other deleterious things now have a pathway.
That is, 5 percent of all wells will be affected rapidly and woe betide any home owners in their vicinity. Ingraffea invoked the 100,000 odd wells in PA alone, noting that failure rate meant 5,000 wells immediately failed in Pennsylvania alone. That translates to 5,000 methane migrations into the ground water and ruination of citizens' lives. Just one well going bad means one aquifer will be polluted, such as in Dimock. PA
Even the companies don't deny the disastrous leaks and assorted documents Josh Fox obtained show that. For example, in one document, from Southwestern Energy, a diagram clearly showed that the gas well had a cement barrier with a casing that prevented gases from migrating upwards. But this wasn't a Powerpoint poster about drilling wells but rather about how cement and casings fail and allow methane gas and other substances to migrate into aquifers.
Another document from Schlumberger, showed that cement failure occured at alarming rates - as depicted in one of their graphs showing 'fraction of wells affected by cement failure' vs. the well age in years. The graph depicted a failure fraction of 40 percent after only 12 years, and a failure fraction of 50 percent after 30 years. That meant if 1.5 million new wells are added in the U.S. by 2025 as projected, 750,000 will leak after thirty years. If 180,000 are added to PA, that means 90,000 will leak after 30 years.
Crude oil pipelines fare no better and leaks can often spring from human error - such as a backhoe striking a pipeline in a vulnerable place, as well as natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes) and welding failures. When we visited the Alaska pipeline in March, 2005,
We were informed by our guide that repairs were already underway to several sections they believed wouldn't be able to withstand even a minor (Richter 4.0) earthquake.
In the case of the pipeline causing the Santa Barbara spill, Plains All American Pipeline LP- the company which operates the pipeline and its subsidiaries, have reported 223 accidents since 2006 which have resulted in a total of 864,300 gallons of spilled oil, hazardous liquids with damages payouts topping $32 million. (With 25 enforcement regulations by federal regulators)
In 76 percent of the incidents corrosion was determined to be the major cause. Meanwhile, failures in materials, welds, and other equipment were cited more than 80 times. The company and its affiliates have the fifth highest number of significant pipeline accidents since 2006.
Last Friday, Plains All American Pipeline insisted it "spent $300 million last year on maintenance and integrity".
Bit what they haven't said, and no other pipeline company likely will (whether for crude transport or fracking) is that the more pipelines generated the greater the incidence of failures. In a world of limited resources the maintenance costs will always exceed benefits beyond a certain level. The question is what is that level? If the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) gets passed there will be no limit on the demand for additional fracking infrastructure and crude pipelines in the U.S. - to meet global demand. There may then be such a frequency of spills, leakage that no amount of maintenance will contain them - or fed enforcement regulations.
Bottom line, if the oil industry continues to get its way - especially with indiscriminate fracking as well as drilling in the Arctic - look for a very bleak, and blackish oil spill future!