Baker & O'Brien, Inc.

Case Studies

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Pipeline Rupture – Who was to Blame?

Dispute, North America

November 1, 2017

Oil and gas pipelines usually operate in a so-called “right-of-way” (ROW) that is owned by other parties but made available for the public benefit.  However, it is not uncommon for a pipeline to share the same ROW with a public utility that uses it for the power transmission lines that are part of its transmission system.  Because pipelines are typically buried underground, aerial monitoring and surveillance often requires periodic clearance of brush or other vegetation that might obstruct the identification of any leaks or spills.  Pipeline owners commonly contract such ROW clearing activities to specialist companies that employ heavy-duty mechanical equipment.

The presence of crude oil in a nearby waterway was traced to a previously undetected leak in a crude oil pipeline.  Initial indications suggested that a downed electrical power line that ran through the ROW had caused a hole in the pipeline.  The pipeline was shut down until a thorough investigation could be performed.  The investigation revealed that a contractor had performed an ROW clearing operation some time prior to the discovery of crude oil in the waterway.  It was alleged that the cause of the downed power line—and the consequent leak—was the direct result of the contractor’s activity during the ROW clearing.  After the pipeline investigation was complete, the pipeline operator sued the contractor for liability related to

the incident.  In its defense, the contractor claimed it was simply acting under the operator’s own guidance.

Baker & O’Brien was engaged to review the activities of both the pipeline operator and the contractor to determine whether each followed applicable pipeline industry standards and best practices.  Issues addressed included: (1) an analysis of the contemporaneous events related to the contractor’s ROW clearing activity that was alleged to have caused the downed power line and the pipeline failure; (2) whether there was proper communication between the pipeline control center, the utility, and the contractor during the ROW clearing activity; (3) procedures that were in place for identifying and responding to specific emergencies in the ROW; (4) training procedures concerning the subject of a downed electrical power line being able to cause a leak in an underground pipeline; and (5) procedures that were in place for notifying and coordinating with emergency services and appropriate public officials in the event of a hazardousliquid pipeline emergency.