Finding California Oil Pipelines Near Your Home Not So Easy

Oil pipelines near Bolsa Chica | Photo: Trader Chris/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As word comes in of the third oil pipeline break this week, this one from a Shell Oil pipeline in Texas, Californians may be wondering whether the same could happen here. Frightening news has unfolded since last Friday of the tarsands oil spill from Exxon's Pegasus pipeline through Mayflower Arkansas, that spill happening mere days after a train derailment spilled 30,000 gallons of tarsands oil in Minnesota. On average, according to federal agencies, 3.5 million gallons of oil spills from aging pipelines each year.

And as California has its share of oil pipelines, we are indeed vulnerable when they fail. But finding out just whether your home, your workplace, or the school your children attend might be vulnerable to oil spill damage is harder than it should be.

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That's in part by design: oil pipelines are vulnerable targets for terrorist attack. Oil and gas pipelines are regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a federal agency that's part of the Department of Transportation, and PHMSA doesn't release the precise locations of oil pipelines, which it generally refers to as "hazardous liquid" pipelines.

The agency does maintain a publicly accessible pipeline mapping viewer, but that viewer is buggy, its maps hard to interpret, and the maps' metadata seemingly incomplete.

California's Department of Conservation put out an authoritative map of California energy infrastructure in 2000, viewable here as a PDF, and it's a lot more helpful than the feds' online map database. Zooming into the state's map reveals a few clusters of oil pipelines in places where you might reasonably expect them -- in the southern L.A. basin, the oil fields of the San Joaquin Valley, along the south shore of San Pablo Bay (where all the refineries are), and in the Ventura Basin connecting with the offshore platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. Zoom in even farther and you can generally figure out within a mile or so just where those pipelines run.

That said, the map is 13 years old, and its data seems to conflict in places with other sources such as PHMSA's online map. But it's a lot easier to interpret than the PHMSA map, and provides much more useful geographical context.

More recent information turns out to be hard to come by. If you're embarking on a construction project, calling 811 connects you to a switchboard that will tell you whether your earth-moving might disrupt a buried transmission pipeline. In Southern California, the vast majority of those lines hold natural gas. Finding out whether there's an aging oil pipeline a mile uphill from your home isn't really in 811's job description. Underground petroleum pipelines are usually marked along their length with warning signs like the one shown here, which is mainly helpful for people digging trenches. Unless you have the time to scour your neighborhood for little signs, you're out of luck.

Sensibly enough, the State Fire Marshall maintains a map of pipeline locations in order to help first responders know what they're up against when they arrive at a fire or spill. That map isn't accessible to the public. As it stands now, except for those of us who happen to live right up against a pipeline route and have seen the signs there, Californians will likely stay pretty much in the dark about the precise location and condition of the state's 5,500 miles of pipelines that carry oil and other hazardous materials.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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