Bad Mojo, Mofo

Yo.  Peoples:  did I or did I not warn you that Plains All American Pipeline LP was gonna incur bad mojo for stirring up noise and “moving earth” in Tai Sui‘s home turf during the Year of the Goat?  That’s right, I certainly did.  That was in February, as the lunar year began.

Plains All American LP will build two new crude oil pipelines in far West Texas and New Mexico to move Permian Basin production to markets [including] a 60-mile, 16-inch State Line pipeline to connect Culberson County output to Wink, Texas, along the Texas-New Mexico state line.

“Moving earth” and major construction projects in the Grand Duke’s south-southwest realm are surefire ways to irritate the year’s cosmic ruler; this will definitely not turn out well.  It’s clear that the U.S. petroleum industry will have to learn its feng shui protocol the hard way.  Which reinsurance provider is currently holding liability policies on Plains All American LP?  Time to double-check your risk management posture!


Who’s scoffing now?  Certainly not the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and the U.S. Coast Guard.

A 24-inch Plains All American oil pipeline between ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon Processing Facility near Refugio [California] and a Gaviota pumping station 10 miles away [burst on Tuesday morning, spilling] an estimated 105,000 gallons of crude.  About 21,000 gallons is believed to have made it to the sea and split into slicks that stretched 9 miles along coast.  A 23-mile by 7-mile area was closed to fishing.

Since 2006, Plains All American and its subsidiaries have reported 199 accidents and been subject to 22 enforcement actions by federal regulators. The accidents resulted in a combined 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids spilled and damage topping $25 million.  Corrosion was determined to be the cause in more than 80 of those accidents.  Failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 70 times.  Enforcement cases against the companies resulted in the collection of $154,000 in penalties, according to a federal database.

photo credits: Paul Wellman (O, the irony!)

photo credits: Paul Wellman (O, the irony!)

However, before attributing this particular industrial debacle to supernatural causes, we might as well consider human agency and direct intervention:

Plains pipeline operations director Rich McMichael said Wednesday evening that two of the company’s pumps had problems on Tuesday morning.  He said the pump was shut down at about 11:30 a.m. after employees noticed a “pressure anomaly.”

“At 10:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, we experienced some mechanical issues at our Las Flores pump station on line 901 to Gaviota, causing the pipeline to shut down. We started the pumps at 10:55 a.m. Pacific Time, but were still having trouble with our pumping units.

“The pump at our Sisquoc Station went down at 11:15 a.m. and the operator in our control center shut the pipeline down at 11:30 a.m.  At 12:30 p.m., we received a call from a local first responder reporting an odor in the area.  We immediately dispatched a Plains employee to the pipeline to make a visual inspection, and he confirmed the release at 1:30 p.m.”

Lemme guess:  Plains All American’s pipeline network is fully automated and monitored by a corresponding network of SCADA control nodes.  Pumps, valves, sensors and alarm stations linked by a company-wide ethernet platform that provides an overall view of system flow, throughput, and operating status.  And that ethernet process-control network is air-gapped from the internet … maybe.  Not that it could be hacked or anything.

The Plains pipeline is the only pipeline in Santa Barbara County without an automatic shutdown valve in case of a rupture. Instead, the Plains pipeline must be shut down manually in case of such emergencies. That’s because Plains All American took Santa Barbara County to court more than 20 years ago to restrict the county’s regulatory oversight.  It won.  According to County Energy Division director Kevin Drude, the SCADA equipment of other pipeline operators is so sensitive it can detect the loss of 20 barrels of oil over a 20-hour period.  By contrast, the Plains pipeline leaked about 2,500 barrels worth of oil in a matter of a few hours before the company’s crew manually shut it down.

Oops!  My bad.  Looks like a semi-automated pipeline with a key vulnerability –no automatic shut-down valve.  “All your leetle pipeline is belong to us.


Who wants to be the guy that tells Greg Armstrong his computer network has been completely hacked by the Rooskies?  Who wants to tell Californians –or Jerry Brown— that the Refugio pipeline breach is payback for the United States’ Christmas Eve cyberwar attack on the Rosneft/Transneft pipeline at Tuapse?  Better to blame it all on the cosmic forces of feng shui.


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