While pipeline spills involving toxic crude oil or methane leaks capture the public imagination, they do not represent all pipeline breakdowns. A different segment of the energy industry, handling more than just oil and gas, also encounters incidents. The upstream sector of the energy industry is responsible for exploration and production of the oil and gas that is carried through the nation’s transmission pipelines and distribution networks. But this is also where waste products from exploration are captured, transported, and stored.

This upstream industry segment sometimes sees failures in smaller pipelines carrying brine and waste water from the oil field. When these pipelines fail and spread harmful liquids across private property, public lands, and ecologically sensitive areas, they do not always capture headlines as “oil spills.” Yet they can be devastating to farmers and ranchers, the local environment, and wildlife.

It is difficult to know the frequency or rarity of these events, because few clear reporting requirements exist for this section of the industry. When incidents do occur, they may be noticed or reported locally. One such incident occurred in North Dakota this month. A small four-inch plastic composite pipeline carrying produced water and other unwanted byproducts failed and spilled over 850 barrels (or nearly 40,000 gallons). The waste water was reported as much as a half-miles from the point of failure. Other incidents tell similar stories of produced water and other byproducts spilling and leaking from small pipelines and other facilities.

While root causes are still under investigation, many common issues may have come into play. According to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) over half of all pipeline incidents arise from material failures such as weld and joint failures, connection failures, corrosion, and others. Another 12 percent of incidents annually are attributable to excavation damage sustained when heavy machinery accidentally strikes a pipeline which cannot withstand the force or pressure of the impact. While these data come from midstream and downstream infrastructure, similar conditions often face upstream pipelines used to transport waste from the well to storage and disposal sites.

Maintaining a broad view of pipeline safety – to include waste water and other upstream transports – is important for improving infrastructure and protecting the environment. While oil and methane leaks grab the headlines, they do not represent the full picture of the industry. To ensure safe transport of all material by pipeline, higher standards are essential. Those standards must include quality material and best practices for construction and monitoring of pipeline.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.