Risks, Consequences and Role of Human Error in Spills> News> USC Dornsife
Following the recent rupture of a pipeline that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the waters off Huntington Beach, Calif., USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies director Joe Árvai discusses the dangers and the future of transporting oil through miles of pipelines. [6 min read]
The big picture:
- Pipelines are the most reliable way to transport oil, but all too often they are built in environmentally, culturally or economically sensitive areas, without considering the consequences of a spill.
- Every spill is ultimately the result of human error, sometimes associated with complacency. While we didn’t seem to be improving to prevent them, we did improve to correct them.
- Diminishing demand for oil is the only way to eliminate the risk of future oil spills. Fortunately, the end of oil as the primary fuel source for the transportation sector is in sight.
Eight years ago, as Canadians debated a 731-mile pipeline proposal, USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies director Joe Árvai (then a professor at the University of Calgary) wrote an op-ed for Canada’s The times of the hills, arguing that the inevitability of human error leads to another fatality: as long as we have pipelines, we will have oil spills.
Now the Dana and David Dornsife Chair in Psychology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Árvai studies how humans assess risk and make decisions. In the wake of the recent Orange County oil spill, he answers questions about the risks and future of oil pipeline transportation.
The investigation into the Orange County oil spill is ongoing, as are the impact studies, but what do you think about the severity of the oil spill and its lasting consequences on the environment?
There are more qualified experts than I do, but based on my initial training in oceanography, the short answer is: it depends. Oil spills on the high seas tend to have a lower impact as the oil floats and few species spend all of their time on the surface. Oil also eventually dissipates, sinks and evaporates. All of this helps mitigate, but does not eliminate, the negative consequences of a spill on the high seas. The damage is much worse when a spill hits the coast.
The  Exxon Valdez and  Deep water horizon spills are the most recent posters for this kind of disaster. The Exxon Valdez spill devastated Prince William Sound’s intertidal ecosystem [Alaska] for decades. We see the same slow timeline unfold in the swamps and estuaries of the Gulf Coast after Deep water horizon.
Oil spills also have devastating social and economic consequences. They hunt tourists, the fishing industry and recreation. Worse yet, they often affect places of great cultural significance to First Nations people, like the Tongva-Gabrielino here in Southern California.
At the very least, human error seems to have made the Orange County flight worse. Why do such mistakes happen so often, especially in a highly regulated industry?
Because pipelines are built and maintained by people, every resulting oil spill is human error. We’ll probably have to wait a while to see what really happened in Orange County, but typically these spills happen because the monitoring and upgrading doesn’t happen as often and with as much care as it does. should, or because a boat or other machinery is approaching too close and damaging the pipeline. Then add to that what happens when there are failures in human systems that are supposed to respond to these kinds of accidents.
The 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan, spilled 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, an environmentally sensitive river. After the initial alarm, it took nearly 18 hours for people in the control room to shut off the flow of oil. Why? Because they thought they were receiving the wrong data from the sensors in the pipeline. An autopsy of the spill showed that false alarms were not uncommon, leading control room operators to usually ignore alarms. Regulation is no match for human complacency.
Is it currently possible, or will it ever be possible, to have an environmentally safe pipeline transfer of oil?
Environmental workers clean up the beach after the recent oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, California.
Here’s the big conundrum: Pipelines are, by far, the most reliable way to transport oil. When safety is judged by the amount of oil spilled per unit transported, pipelines are safer than transporting oil by train or truck. The problem is, we haven’t paid enough attention to where we install these pipelines in the first place. Too often, we build them in ecologically, culturally or economically sensitive areas, with little regard for the potential consequences if and when a spill does occur.
The old Keystone XL pipeline is one example. The Native American tribes of Montana and South Dakota sounded the alarm early and often that construction and a potential spill could devastate the land and water they relied on for their survival. They were right, but the federal government had to be convinced to revoke a pipeline license that had already been issued.
Then there is the question of how many of these pipelines we need in the first place. The petroleum industry, at least as we know it today, is entering its final act, as segments of our economy that once depended on petroleum now receive their energy from renewable sources. So, I think we have to ask ourselves: is the potential social and environmental price of another big accident worth the short-term economic or political benefit of exploring for oil and building pipelines in new areas? In my opinion, the answer is “no”.
Since your 2013 editorial, have we made any progress in preventing pipeline spills – or cleaning them up?
When it comes to cleaning them, the short answer is “yes”, but for unfortunate reasons. The technology for containing and cleaning up oil spills has improved thanks to the experience we have gained from all the damage we have caused. However, this is far from perfect. The only reliable way to prevent damage from an oil spill is to prevent the spill in the first place.
Have we improved our ability to prevent them? I think it’s pretty clear that history holds the answer: from Exxon Valdez To Deep water horizon, and some  train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, to the spill that sparked this conversation, the answer certainly seems to be “no”.
So what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the risk of future spills?
It would be incorrect to suggest that any of the companies involved in catastrophic oil spills wanted to that they happen. But the simple fact remains that every step of oil production, from recovery to refining to use, requires human intervention and oversight. With this in mind, mistakes are inevitable.
That being said, I think it’s a relatively short matter of time before we see the end of oil as a major fuel source for the transportation sector. For example, electric vehicles are starting to experience high market penetration, which will drastically reduce the demand for oil. This alone will go a long way in mitigating the risk of future spills. But by then, the next disaster is fast approaching. It’s just a matter of where it will happen, and how big and devastating it will be.