Recently, I've asked a group of industry experts to prove or qualify the statement “pipelines are the safest way to move hazardous liquids.” Apparently finding it impossible to do either, many industry supporters have decided to simply stop saying it. At pipeline public safety hearings held in Harrisburg before the House and Senate Emergency Preparedness Committees on November 16, 2016, Sunoco representatives instead came up with a new statistic: “In 2014, 16.2 billion barrels of crude oil and petroleum products [hazardous liquids] were delivered by pipeline. 99.999% of these products reached their destination safely.”
Let’s take a closer look
1. Why did they use 2014 data instead of 2015? Well, in 2015 pipeline operators leaked more than twice the quantity of hazardous liquids leaked in 2014. Evidently they decided to cherry-pick a year that looked better, rather than use the latest data.
2. Second, Sunoco has the highest number of leaks of any of the 2,049 pipeline operators tracked by the federal government. Sunoco is trying to lump itself in with the other 2,048 operators that don’t leak as much as it does.
3. Next, It's clear that under-reporting of leaked materials is commonplace. The federal regulator relies almost exclusively on self-reporting; and Sunoco has received multiple federal enforcement actions for failing to make required leak reports. But for the sake of argument let’s accept Sunoco’s figures at face value: 16.2 billion barrels transported with 99.999% of them reaching their destination safely.
That means that .001%, or 162,000 barrels did NOT get safely to their destination. That's 6,800,000 gallons of hazardous liquids leaked along the way. In one year!
Let me put it in aviation terms. United States commercial air carriers flew about 8,900,000 scheduled flights in 2015 (the last full year for which data are available). If "only" 99.999% of those flights "reached their destinations safely," 89 of them would have crashed. That would have meant more than 7 fatal accidents every month. Call it two per week. (The commercial air carrier industry actually had zero fatalities in 2015).
If the air carrier industry had a safe delivery rate of only 99.999%, no one would be willing to step foot on an airplane. Achieving a 99.999% success rate in a hazardous industrial enterprise is a shameful record. Frankly, it's an objectively abysmal and completely unacceptable failure rate.
*Graphic courtesy of Sunoco’s public relations firm The Bravo Group. Tagline: “Win Tough Fights TM : A Campaign-Style Approach to Advocacy and Public Relations.” look.