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Rupture in California Oil and Gas Pipeline

A recent oil and gas pipeline rupture demonstrates how important it is to have an experienced pipeline attorney review the document to make sure your land is protected to the full extent of the law. In this case, a 24-inch crude oil pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline LP (PAA) ruptured on May 19, 2015 in Santa Barbara, California. The pipeline experienced an 82% wall thickness loss at the rupture site. An evaluation released on June 3, 2015 by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) indicated that there was a 6-inch opening running the length of the relevant section of pipeline. Both near the rupture and in other sections of the pipeline, corrosion had reduced the thickness of the pipe to 0.0625 inch. The PHMSA says they have not not yet been able to determine the cause of failure, although it certainly sounds as though the thinning of the pipeline was the culprit.

Conflicting Reports

The results released by PHMSA conflict with a report released by PAA which stated that there was only a 45% wall thickness loss in the area of the pipe rupture. PHMSA ordered PAA to perform another study on the pipeline and the rupture area, and to repair the damaged portion of the pipeline. PHMSA had previously ordered an indefinite shutdown of the pipeline.

Inspections were also conducted on three previously repaired sections of the pipeline near the rupture. The repairs were intended to fix corrosion damage discovered in a 2012 inspection of the pipeline by PAA. PAA used a cathodic protection technique to repair the pipe, which is a technique used to control corrosion of a metal surface. The technique involves using the pipeline as a cathode of an electrochemical cell and coupling the cathode with an anode pairing made from a sacrificial metal that is easily corroded. The intent is to have the corrosion occur at the sacrificial anode, rather than at the protected cathode, i.e., the pipeline. The PHMSA report stated that PAA’s cathodic protection at the failure site and the other three repair points met current industry standards.

Preventative Measures

In response to the leak in the pipeline, the PHMSA placed restrictions on the operation of another one of PAA’s pipelines that contains similar insulation, welding, and corrosion protection as the ruptured pipeline. The operating restrictions require that the pipeline not exceed 80% of the highest rated operating pressure for a continuous 8 hour period. Instead of operating with the restrictions, PAA decided to shut down the second pipeline, which runs 128 miles from the Gavota Pump Station in Santa Barbara County to the Emidio Pump Station in Kern County.

The PHMSA also amended a previous corrective action order to require that PAA list and describe any anomalies discovered after performing an inline inspection of the pipeline. The inline inspection identifies regions that require further inspection or repair under the higher of either current regulatory standards or PAA’s own internal standards. The PHMSA is also requiring that PAA have a third party perform nondestructive testing at the site of each anomaly discovered during the inline inspection. Other mitigation and prevention measures PAA must undertake on both pipelines are daily inspection of pumping stations and weekly inspections of the pipeline right of way.

On June 3, 2015, U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), whose district includes the region of Santa Barbara where the rupture took place, proposed an amendment that requires federal regulators to finalize the enhanced safety rules for oil pipelines as part of the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill. The new rules would require automatic shutoff valves on new pipelines and require the inclusion of leak detection technology on new and existing pipelines.

Pipeline ruptures can result in substantial damages to landowners. Before you sign a pipeline easement or right of way, have an experienced pipeline attorney review the document to make sure your land is protected to the full extent of the law.

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