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You’re probably wondering: Why is there a “weekly list" of oil spills? That’s because tens of thousands of gallons of petro-chemicals are spilled each month in the US. And the Federal Government requires oil manufacturers to voluntarily report, contain, monitor, and clean-up spills and accidents.

The key word there is “voluntary.” Fines for oil spills are minimal, often challenged in court, and are difficult to enforce. This is because, basically, the oil and gas industry helped write the reporting and clean-up rules for oil, gas, and chemical spills, but I’ll leave that background for another post.

Oil and gas spills are listed in various databases online. Two of the most popular databases are the National Response Center and the United Steel Workers (USW) union website. The USW database compiles a weekly list of spills from various sources such as the media, Dept. of Energy, the NRC above, and individual state databases.

You may have heard about last week’s 20,000 gallon oil-pipeline spill in Texas (video). The pipeline, owned by Sunoco, cracked and 550+ barrels of raw oil leaked into a river. It is unclear if any fines will be issued, nor is it clear what damage the spill will do to the environment (the spill site is off limits to the press and the public).

20,000 gallons may sound like a big spill, but it’s not. In fact, it’s just one of about 100 spills that occur each and every month in the United States.

Oil, gas, and chemical spills and fires occur in the United States week after week, month after month, for years and years. Here’s a sampling* from just last week:

Shell Reports Fire at Its 329,800 b/d Deer Park, Texas Refinery
Shell Oil Co. reported that operators had quickly isolated and contained a fire in a single, unspecified unit at its DeerPark refinery Tuesday morning. No injuries or offsite impacts were reported.
Pressure Safety Valve Malfunction Causes Butanes Emissions at Citgo’s 163,000 b/d Corpus Christi, Texas Refinery
Citgo Petroleum Corp. reported a pressure safety valve (PSV) at the East Plant Terminal of its Corpus Christi refinery opened and released Butanes to the atmosphere Thursday morning, according to a filing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Operators isolated the line connected to the PSV and were investigating the cause of the malfunction.
Tesoro Restarts Hydrocracker after Pipeline Repairs at Its 166,000 b/d Martinez, California Refinery
Tesoro Corp. was restarting a hydrocracker at its Golden Eagle refinery in Martinez today after replacing equipment.
Operators shut the hydrocracker on February 2 after discovering a hole in a line.

Amine System Upset Triggers Flaring at Marathon’s 490,000 b/d Garyville, Louisiana Refinery
Marathon Petroleum Corp. reported liquid hydrocarbon got into the amine system at its Garyville refinery Thursday, and in order to minimize further upset in the system, operators removed the hydrocarbon by routing it to the flare, according to a filing with the U.S. National Response Center.

Phillips 66 Reports Fire at Its 139,000 b/d Wilmington, California Refinery
Phillips 66 reported a flaring event at its Wilmington refinery Thursday, according to a filing with the California Emergency Management Agency. Operators were investigating the incident, which caused more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide to release to the atmosphere.

You can read hundreds of weekly reports via USW.

*Note, you’ll see the words “flaring” and “emissions” a lot in these reports. Emissions is code for spills, leaks, or fires. There are two types of “Flaring events.” Flaring events are not the same as regular manufacturing flares. The first type is when unrefined (e.g., raw or dirty) oil or gas is burned in an accidental fire. Sometimes pipelines or refineries catch fire or explode on accident, causing fuel to burn in the open air. The second type of flaringevent occurs when a refiner cannot stop the leak right away. This is an interesting loophole in the emissions law. When there is a spill onto land or into a water body, the manufacturer has the option to divert the fuel and simply burn it into the air. Manufacturers are generally (there are exceptions) not responsible for pollution from flaring events. Burning the fuel avoids expensive land and water clean-up, and the government allows this to happen without additional permits or strict monitoring. It’s a temporary solution for the manufacturer, but is still terrible for the environment. This type of flaring dumps incredibly dangerous chemicals and particulates into the air, for which the manufacturer is (generally) not responsible.

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