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Improving Liquid Pipeline Safety

The nation's more than 190,000 miles of petroleum transmission pipelines are the primary means of moving crude oil, gasoline, diesel fuel and other petroleum products to consumer markets. Pipelines are safe, efficient and, because most are buried, largely unseen. They move crude oil from oil fields on land and offshore to refineries where it is turned into fuels and other products, then from the refineries to terminals where fuels are trucked to retail outlets. Pipelines operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Safety is paramount. Operators strive to protect pipelines from corrosion, excavation damage, and other threats. A critical aspect of safety is collecting and analyzing data on pipeline spills. Every spill of at least five gallons is reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In addition, the industry collects and analyzes more detailed spill data through the voluntary Pipeline Performance Tracking System (PPTS), which has collected spill data since 1999. Operators representing 85 percent of regulated liquid petroleum pipeline miles participate in PPTS.

The stated philosophy of PPTS is: measure, learn, manage and improve, and through a wide range of efforts in part guided by learnings from PPTS, pipeline operators have dramatically improved pipeline safety, substantially reducing both the number and volume of spills. A comparison of three-year spill averages for the periods 1999-2001 and 2009-2011 shows a 60 percent decrease in the number of spills per 1,000 miles of pipeline and a 43 percent decrease in the volume spilled per 1,000 miles of pipeline.

Every spill is one too many, and operators, working with regulators, continue efforts to reduce them with an ultimate goal of zero spills, zero deaths, zero injuries.

Government agencies that regulate the pipeline industry include the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.