OIL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: The real mystery has never been what caused the Plains All American Pipeline rupture in the first place. It’s always been why it didn’t happen sooner and much worse. These are not the doom-n-gloom musings by someone given to apocalyptic dementia. Instead, this question is triggered by new documentation — at least to me — detailing chronic quality-control problems that dogged construction of the All American Pipeline when it was first laid into the ground back in the 1980s. County records from that time show that 15 percent of the pipeline welds inspected during a three-day audit failed to meet minimum standards. That’s a lot. When those three days were up, Celeron denied the pipeline experts hired by the county further access to welding records.
I stumbled onto this new information while exploring how and why Plains All American — more precisely, its predecessor Celeron/All American — came to be the one and only pipeline operator in Santa Barbara County to successfully challenge the county’s authority to oversee and regulate pipeline-integrity issues. Why, I wondered, did Celeron take the County of Santa Barbara to federal court when none of the other pipeline owners operating in Santa Barbara saw fit to do the same? Because Celeron prevailed in that showdown, pipeline safety inspections and enforcement for the All American line were relegated to an egregiously understaffed and underfunded federal safety agency — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), at which the top three executive leadership positions are now conspicuously vacant.
So what sparked the legal dispute that put PMHSA in the driver’s seat? Some blandly generic assertion of jurisdictional testosterone? It’s much more disturbing than that. By 1986, county administrators had grown concerned about allegations of slipshod welding practices by the crews laying the pipeline. Accordingly, the county hired a civil engineer who specialized in integrity audits of massive industrial projects, Richard K. Shogren. For three days in November 1986, an engineer employed by Shogren, Carl Ward, met with Celeron metallurgical engineer Rick Hill in the company’s Bakersfield offices. They rummaged through four boxes of radiographs — X-ray images showing the complete circumference of a weld. In all, 58 radiographs were inspected, a small test sample of the 9,500 welds throughout All American’s 70-mile stretch of pipe. Of the 58, seven were of such poor quality no assessment could be made. Of the 51 remaining, eight failed to meet the minimal standards established by the American Petroleum Institute. Of those eight, five failed to meet the minimal standards set by Celeron itself. No matter how Shogren did the math, only 60 percent of the welds inspected met minimum standards. Assuming the same proportions were manifest throughout the 70 miles of pipe running through the county, Shogren estimated there could be as many as 1,425 substandard welds. If the welds were assessed based on Celeron’s own standards, he concluded there could be as many as 900.
After the 58 radiographs were reviewed, Shogren reported his representative — Ward — was notified by Celeron reps that “no more film would be made available for review by county representatives and the audit effort was suspended.” By way of explanation, Shogren speculated, “We can only assume that the weld-rejection rate was too high and that the construction schedule and budget were suffering.”
Shogren was also asked to provide his two cents’ worth on the construction and engineering work he witnessed by Celeron’s pipeline crew. He was underwhelmed in the extreme. He expressed surprise, for example, that Celeron’s original plans included no accompanying geohazard report even though the pipeline — as first proposed — would cut over two active fault lines and at “several major landslide areas.” At the time, Celeron project managers explained they’d address such problems as they encountered them. Some significant changes were made and landslide areas avoided, Shogren conceded, but only by dint of strenuous effort. “Our field observations indicate a general lack of attention to good construction practice,” he wrote in one report. In another, he complained that Celeron construction practices “subverted” safe and sensible engineering and design decisions. Getting the project into compliance, he charged, “required a level of effort which should not have been required.”
Two important disclaimers: There’s no evidence at this time to indicate the pipeline rupture was caused by any of the problems articulated by Shogren. And Plains All American is not Celeron. But Plains, it should be stressed, acquired a pipeline born of a corporate culture of pervasive and calculated carelessness. In response to Celeron’s desire to inoculate that culture from the prying intrusions of county safety inspectors, the county took Celeron to federal court. How exactly that process played out is something I’m still exploring. But we know the county lost and PHMSA — a federal agency notoriously underequipped in terms of staffing and clear regularity guidelines — wound up with oversight authority on matters of pipeline safety.
In 2002, Congress ordered PHMSA to begin studying the feasibility of more stringent standards for leak-detection equipment required of pipeline operators. Currently, PHMSA has no such standards at all. By contrast, the State of Alaska requires detection equipment sensitive enough to catch pipeline pressure drops of one percent over 90 minutes. In the State of Washington, it’s an 8 percent drop over 15 minutes. As of 2010, PHMSA had undertaken only the first step of a nine-step process required of any change in federal rules. That’s when it issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register. To date, the second step in that arduous process has not been initiated. As for automatic pipeline-shutoff-spill-containment technology — much ballyhooed in this paper — PHMSA agreed in 2000 to leave that decision up to the pipeline industry.
Given Celeron’s culture of negligence and PHMSA’s tradition of toothlessness, the question has never been “if” and it hasn’t been “when.” It’s always been, “How bad?”