Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.
The Ballad of Jed Clampett
Well, it would be fun to think that was what happened up in Williams County to cause what is now described as the largest ever land-based oil spill in America. But Jed Clampett didn’t shoot a hole in Tesoro Petroleum’s pipeline, unleashing 865,000 gallons of crude oil, I don’t think.
So how did all that oil get out of the pipeline, and into the air, and on and under the ground, in such a short period of time? That’s a question that’s going to be answered eventually, I hope, because we need to know that answer to try to figure out how never to let it happen again.
As I said the other day, I’m an English major, so I just love to do simple math problems, as a sense of accomplishment, if for nothing else. All the newspaper stories I’ve seen say the oil came from a quarter-inch hole in an underground pipeline. So I asked a friend the other day “How long does it take for 865,000 gallons of oil to get through a quarter-inch hole in a pipeline?” In fact, I asked several friends. The common response was, “I suppose it depends on how much pressure there was in the pipe.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but it was a hole the size of a pencil. How much will actually fit through a hole that size at one time, even with a lot of pressure? Besides, the pipe was underground, so it had to push away some dirt to get out of the hole.”
Okay, let’s do some math. I took my garden hose—five-eighths of an inch across, more than twice the size of that quarter-inch hole in the pipeline—and filled a five-gallon pail. Took a couple of minutes. But let’s assume there was more pressure in that pipe than in my garden hose. A lot more. Let’s say, because of pressure behind it, it could spurt five gallons of that thick, bubbly crude a minute out of that ¼ inch hole, about twice as much as my 5/8 inch hose. At that rate, it would take 173,000 minutes to emit 865,000 gallons. That’s 2,883 hours and 20 minutes. Or about 120 days, about 4 months.
Okay, okay, if it had been leaking that long, surely someone—Tesoro, or the farmer who owned the land and had planted a crop there last spring—would have noticed it. Besides, the wheat grew, matured, ripened and was combined, and it wouldn’t have done that in a pool of oil.
So let’s say it leaked twice that much—ten gallons a minute. At ten gallons a minute, it’s really shooting out of that quarter-inch hole. For 60 days. Two months. Still not reasonable? Okay, let’s say 20 gallons a minute. Now we’re talking a geyser the likes of which we haven’t seen since the movie “Giant.” I mean, to get 20 gallons of thick gooey oil out of a quarter-inch hole in a pipe in one minute, now that would be something to see. At that rate, it would have been gushing for 30 days, according to my math.
But wait. Tesoro said they ran a “smart pig” though the line during an inspection just a couple weeks before the spill was reported on Sept. 29. Inspected the pipe September 10-11, they said. Holy cow! If the pipeline started leaking the day after that test, it had to have been gushing about 40 gallons a minute. I’m trying to picture 40 gallons of oil coming out of a ¼ inch hole in a minute. An underground pipeline. I can’t see it in my mind’s eye.
I’m sorry, folks, but something is just not adding up here. Somebody is not telling the truth here. It is time to find out. Because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of miles of underground pipe in North Dakota. It is time for our state officials to get to the bottom of this. There has to be a record of how much oil went into that pipe every day. There has to be a record of how much oil came out the other end every day. So we’re going to know for sure someday how much leaked. Then we need to know exactly how much oil can come through a pencil-sized hole at certain amounts of pressure. I wish I knew that. Because then maybe I wouldn’t be so suspicious that the hole in the pipe was waaaaaay bigger than we’ve been led to believe. Or that it had been leaking a looooong time, undetected by an irresponsible company.
P.S. My friend Jeff sent me this story today, showing how really bad things can be, but also how quickly some pipeline companies can react to a spill. Looks like we got “lucky” that we were only dealing with a quarter inch hole. Or so.