Pipelines Going Uninspected, Threatening Public Health, Safety, and Environment

August 15, 2018

Oil pipeline underlying Green River in northeast Utah’s Ouray National Wildlife Refuge.

WildEarth Guardians late yesterday filed suit over the Trump Administration’s failure to defend American public lands from an estimated 120,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines.

The landmark lawsuit targets the failure of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (known as PHMSA) to ensure legally-required inspections of oil and gas pipelines on federally-managed public lands.

Check our our latest story mapping series to learn more and get your geographic bearings, and read on for more details.

Given the failure of the Transportation Department and PHMSA to ensure adequate inspections of these pipelines, Guardians simultaneously called on the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to impose a moratorium on approving any new oil and gas pipelines on public lands. 

Check out the map below to see where federally managed public lands are located. Most are in the western United States.

Legally Required Inspections Not Happening

At issue is a provision of Section 28 the U.S. Mineral Leasing Act. While this federal law authorizes the Interior Department to grant rights of way for the construction and operation of oil and gas pipelines on public lands, the Transportation Department is charged with ensuring these pipelines are inspected at least once a year. The provision, codified at 30 U.S.C. § 185(w)(3), states:

Periodically, but at least once a year, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation shall cause the examination of all pipelines and associated facilities on Federal lands and shall cause the prompt reporting of any potential leaks or safety problems.

– U.S. Mineral Leasing Act

Unfortunately, after conducting an extensive investigation, Guardians learned the Transportation Department not only isn’t aware of this federal law, but has no records demonstrating that pipelines on public lands are being inspected annually. Read more here about some of our prior investigating.

In fact, in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for records documenting that oil and gas pipelines on public lands are being inspected, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration responded:

After a full review of the FOIA file and a renewed search conducted in the Office of Pipeline Safety, PHMSA has completed its processing of your FOIA request and did not locate any responsive records.

– U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

It’s telling that in recent reports to Congress, the Transportation Department and PHMSA have not even acknowledged their duty to ensure inspections under the Mineral Leasing Act. In a 2015 report on pipeline safety, the law did not even make the agency’s list of pipeline safety laws.

Where These Pipelines are Located

A query of reports by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found that there are more than 32,000 oil and gas pipeline rights of way that have been authorized on public lands, largely in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

These states are where the vast majority of America’s public lands are located and where large amounts of oil and gas are produced from onshore federal lands.


Public lands are part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and other special landscapes in the American West. These areas have also been impacted by oil and gas development and pipelines. Photo by Bob Wick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

It’s estimated there are nearly 120,000 miles of public lands pipelines across the U.S. Most of these pipelines are in the Rocky Mountain west.

Unfortunately, precise data is lacking on the exact number, length, and other details regarding oil and gas pipelines on public lands.

In fact, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the vast majority of public lands oil and gas pipeline rights of way, does not even consistently maintain geographic data regarding the location of pipelines.

After requesting pipeline GIS data from Bureau of Land Management offices in Colorado Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, we received different responses from every one.

Some states provided pipeline location data, others provided only the location of the surface right of way. In Wyoming’s case, they gave us data for every single pipeline in the state, regardless of whether it was on public lands. Although the inconsistencies are disconcerting, the data still paints a disturbing picture of how extensive the problem is.

Check out the map below showing the location of oil and gas pipelines on public lands or click here to learn more >>

The Bureau of Land Management’s hodgepodge oversight is compounded by the fact that the Department of Transportation apparently has no clue that it’s supposed to ensure all these pipelines are inspected at least once a year.

Disasters Looming

A lack of inspections means one thing:  disaster. In our review of records from the Bureau of Land Management, we found case after case of pipelines breaking, spilling, and blowing up. In fact, the agency’s own data shows that there is an “incident” involving an oil and gas production facility on public lands at least once daily.

See for yourself the map below of oil and gas industry incidents on public lands.

The lack of oversight is emphasized by the fact that smaller pipelines, often referred to as “gathering lines,” which carry oil and gas from wells to processing facilities, are largely unregulated on public lands under federal pipeline safety rules.

This gap in regulation has been highlighted as problematic by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Although pipelines on public lands aren’t located in heavily populated areas, they continue to pose environmental, health, and safety risks. Broken pipelines threaten water supplies, clean air, fish and wildlife, and even the climate.

For those recreating on public lands, the dangers are very real. In 2000, a pipeline explosion on public lands killed several campers in New Mexico. For many who recreate outdoors in the Rocky Mountain west, the sight of pipelines can be ubiquitous, an ominous sign of the risks.


Natural gas pipeline equipment at public recreation area and boat put-in along the Green River in northeast Utah.

Even small pipelines can pose serious threats. In 2017, a one-inch gas well pipeline blew a house up in Colorado, killing two people.

As documented in WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit, there are numerous reports of pipelines on public lands breaking and spilling in the Rocky Mountain west.

Acting Now to Defend Public Lands From Fracking

As the Trump Administration attempts to ramp up drilling and fracking in the American West, the need to confront public lands oil and gas pipelines is urgent. As more fracking takes hold, more pipelines are sure to follow.

Already in 2018, more than 3.5 million acres of public lands have been proposed for sale to the oil and gas industry in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. This marks an unprecedented high in the acreage of public lands the federal government has leased to the oil and gas industry.


Drilling on public lands in the Jonah Field of western Wyoming is on the rise in the face of the Trump Administrations’ pro-fossil fuel agenda.

With today’s lawsuit and request for a moratorium on new oil and gas pipelines on public lands, WildEarth Guardians aims to rein in unchecked fracking, unsafe pipelines, and to finally hold the oil and gas industry accountable to safeguarding our health and environment.

Defending Our Public Lands and Pushing Back Against Trump

You can help by taking action today to push back against the Trump Administration’s plans to frack the American West. Click here and send a letter demanding that the Administration cancel plans to auction public lands for fracking in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. 

Join a growing chorus of Americans who are defending our public lands from the fossil fuel industry.

In the meantime, here are links to more information and resources:

And as always, stay tuned for more updates.

About the Author

Jeremy Nichols | Former Climate and Energy Program Director, WildEarth Guardians

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