Oil and Water: ETP and Sunoco’s History of Pipeline Spills

by Lauren Reid

April 17, 2018

A new report by Greenpeace USA and Waterkeeper Alliance details a legacy of pipeline spills by Energy Transfer Partners, its subsidiaries including Sunoco, and joint ventures — which have amounted to 3.6 million gallons of hazardous liquid spilled over a 16-year period. These findings illustrate the grave threat pipelines pose to human health and water resources throughout the U.S.

Drilling fluid spilled into streams and wetlands from the Rover pipeline in Ohio, one of the many operations run by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP).

Read the full report here.

As millions of miles of pipelines wind their way across North America, oil spills, natural gas leaks, and other hazardous pipeline incidents have become a dangerous and unavoidable consequence of fossil fuel distribution. Pipelines now run through countless regions — near aquifers and waterways — and as spills occur, they’ve caused immense damage to the land and water resources that communities depend on. 

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), and its complex network of subsidiaries and joint ventures, owns one of the nation’s largest networks of natural gas, crude oil, and petroleum products pipelines. Analysis of public data collected from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) shows that ETP and its subsidiaries including Sunoco and joint ventures, have caused 527 incidents from 2002 to the end of 2017, spilling 87,000 barrels (or 3.6 million gallons) of hazardous liquids, while producing an estimated $115 million in property damage.

A crucial takeaway from this analysis is that despite industry rhetoric to the contrary, there is no failsafe way to transport fossil fuels. Industry safety initiatives — along with understaffed regulatory agencies  — have shown that fossil fuel companies are unable to eliminate the risk of spills, which remain an inescapable consequence of oil and gas activity. It is not a matter of if a pipeline will spill but when. What this underscores is the magnitude of problems communities face when they live in the path of a pipeline — and how important it is that we move towards a renewable energy future.

This report has received widespread support from environmental groups across the U.S., including The Standing Rock Community Development Corporation: “As an organization who is working to protect and empower Standing Rock people, we feel this information should be considered by all parties affected, especially those key stakeholders who have power to end the harmful and neglectful practices Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Corporations represent #MniWichoni”.

Other organizations who endorse this report include:

Atchafalaya Basinkeeper International Indigenous Youth Council Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West The Standing Rock Community Development Corporation Indigenous Peoples Power Project
HELP Association of St. James Pipeline Safety Coalition 350.org New Orleans
Seeding Sovereignty NDN Collective Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation
Big Bend Defense Coalition of West Texas West Virginia Headwaters Waterkeeper Michigan Residents Against ET Rover
Oil Change International Earthworks RAN


Below is a summary of our findings, and you can access the full report here.

  • From 2002 to the end of 2017, ETP, its subsidiaries including Sunoco, and joint ventures reported 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents to federal regulators — approximately one incident from existing facilities every eleven days.
  • Those incidents, reported by the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), released a total of 87,273 barrels (3.6 million gallons, or about five-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools) of hazardous liquids, including 66,515 barrels (2.8 million gallons) of crude oil.
  • In addition, state regulatory agencies have documented spills totaling at least 2.4 million gallons of drilling fluids, sediment and industrial waste during the construction of just two ETP pipelines in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
  • Crude oil spills made up 408 of the PHMSA incidents, along with 92 refined petroleum product spills and 27 highly-volatile liquid (HVL), flammable or toxic spills.
  • Of the hazardous liquid spills from existing facilities, 101 incidents were of 50 barrels or more (2100 gallons, a volume which is considered “significant” by the federal regulator).
  • 67 of the hazardous liquid incidents were reported to have contaminated water, of which 18 incidents contaminated groundwater.
  • These spills caused an estimated $115 million in property damage, and led to 106 Notices of Probable Violations, and $5,675,870 million in penalties from PHMSA alone.
  • The largest spills in the PHMSA database were crude oil spills of 436,000, 361,000, 290,000, 189,000, 153,000, 143,000, 139,000, and 105,000 gallons, and 2 HVL spills of 168,000 and 121,000 gallons.
  • In addition, state agencies and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have issued over 100 notices of violation and/or non-compliance for the construction of the Rover and Mariner pipelines. In 2017-18 alone, ETP and Sunoco were issued six stop work orders by state agencies and FERC because their construction operations violated permit requirements and/or rules and regulations designed to protect streams, rivers, wetlands, drinking water, historic sites and public safety.
  • The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and its southern component only began operations in 2017 but have already reported 7 incidents.
  • Assuming the U.S. system-wide rate for significant crude oil spills of 0.001 per year per mile, we estimate that the Bakken Pipeline would suffer 96 significant spills and the Bayou Bridge Pipeline would suffer eight significant spills, during a 50-year nominal lifetime.
  • There is no failsafe way to transport fossil fuels, and pipeline spills remain a direct and seemingly unavoidable consequence of oil and gas activity.
  • A rapid transition to renewable energy could dramatically reduce spills from pipelines and pollution of drinking water sources.
Lauren Reid

By Lauren Reid

Lauren Reid is the International Communications Lead with the Clean Air Now Campaign. She first volunteered with Greenpeace on the Rainbow Warrior in 2015, for a campaign against overfishing and human rights abuses observed at sea. Lauren is based in New Orleans, LA and you can peep her on Twitter @Lo_Pickles.

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