A small pond affected by the Colonial Pipeline leak in Shelby County, Alabama. Image: EPA

The Anatomy of a Pipeline Accident: The Colonial Pipeline Spill

Pipelines remain one of the most cost effective and efficient forms of transport for energy products in the United States. With a growing and vibrant economy, the country has the largest network of pipelines in the world, stretching across more than 2.4 million miles. Due to a U.S. energy resurgence, resulting in part from the expansion of fracking practices, this transport medium is on the rise.

Despite a robust body of federal regulations and an industry adopted Safety Management System framework, accidents can and do occur. According to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, there were 304 significant pipeline accidents in 2016, resulting in loss of life and environmental damage — not to mention, a surge in regional commodity prices.

The Colonial Pipeline stretches across the Southeastern United States. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

One prominent example Planet monitored occurred on September 8, 2016, in Shelby County, Alabama — a location approximately 30 miles south of the state’s most populous city, Birmingham. At the time, Planet’s constellation of 3–5 meter resolution imaging satellites captured evidence of a leak from Colonial Line 1, a major gasoline pipeline running northeast from the refining hub of the Gulf Coast to New York. Line 1, which carries 1.3 million barrels of refined gasoline per day, accounts for 40–50% of all gasoline sold on the East coast.

In this “before” image, the The Colonial Pipeline stretches across Shelby County, Alabama. Captured August 23, 2016. Image ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.
On September 8, 2016 — one day before a spill was reported to the Colonial Pipeline Company by a third party — Planet satellites spotted a discolored pond adjacent to the pipeline right-of way. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

Satellite imagery revealed the release a full 24 hours before news broke on the incident. In this space snapshot (above) we see gasoline seeping into a nearby mining retention pond, less than 500 feet from the pipeline’s right-of-way. According to information reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) between 6,000 and 8,000 barrels were spilled. Colonial, the largest pipeline operator of refined products in the U.S., was forced to partially shut down Line 1, limiting supplies to key regional distribution centers.

Consequently, the partial closure pushed gasoline futures prices upward as regional gasoline supply was forced to move via different, and less efficient, modes of transportation. More specifically, the U.S. Jones Act — which requires goods moving between U.S. ports to be loaded on U.S. flagged and crewed vessels — inflated the prices of the sizable quantities moving along the East Coast. According to Panjiva data reported by Reuters, waterborne shipments to the affected region rose by 58% during the week of the closure. Similarly, Georgia and Alabama also issued waivers allowing shippers to operate more costly cargo tank motor vehicles for longer hours to deliver the fuel.

SkySat imagery (collected on September 20, 2016) and ground photographs confirm that the pond was near the spill site. News reports. Captured September 20, 2016. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

Meanwhile, the above follow-on collection tasked at higher resolution on Planet’s SkySat satellites showed new pipeline segments at a recently leveled response staging area. There, Colonial delivered additional pipe to bypass the damaged 500 foot segment and restart the critical line.

Pipeline bypasses, which typically sit above-ground, can be monitored from space with high cadence imaging. For market participants requiring timely access to information, Planet is imaging more frequently and consistently than other commercial providers and will soon be able to image the Earth’s entire land surface every day.

Learn more about Planet’s monitoring capability and energy and infrastructure applications: