By Expert No. 47246, P. E. (Retired/Inactive)

Background And Statistics
Petroleum Products
Each day in the United States we use millions of gallons of crude oil to maintain our living and lifestyles. A 2004 study Economic Energy Report on oil production and consumption, has listed the amount of world’s daily production of oil at about 76 million barrels per day. According to the report, the United States uses 20 million barrels of oil daily. This is an enormous quantity of energy use in this country.

Virtually all petroleum products in the U.S. are transported via a network of underground pipelines of 200,000 miles long (10 times longer than that in Europe). In California we have a network of over 8000 miles of oil pipelines which carry oil from oil fields to refineries and from refineries to consumers.

Maintenance and safety of high pressure pipelines present an enormous challenge to oil companies in operating and providing safe and reliable service. Pipelines buried underground are silent carriers and invisible. Most people don’t notice the presence of pipelines in their communities. Invisible pipes are everywhere, crossing areas near residences, downtowns, schools and airports etc.

Although pipelines are considered the safest and most economical mode of transporting large volumes of petroleum and natural gas products over long distances, at times they do present safety risk when in urban areas. Most major airports in U.S. rely on underground pipelines for delivery of jet fuel. The daily consumption of a busy international airport may be around 5 million gallons-a-day or less. A commercial passenger jetliner requires less than 3,000 gallons of fuel per-hour of flight. Construction equipment may inadvertently dig into an underground high-pressure jet fuel line. Any such incident could cause extensive property damage resulting in airport shut down. Whenever the delivery of jet fuel is interrupted, an estimated 600 trucks twice daily would be required to deliver an equivalent daily volume of jet fuel needed.

Natural Gas Pipelines

Underground pipelines are also used to distribute natural gas to consumers including homes and apartment buildings. The aging steel gas pipes are being constantly replaced with high strength Polyethylene plastic pipes. (Since plastic pipes are buried underground they never corrode). One major problem with plastic pipes, however, is that unfortunately, they are vulnerable to ruptures caused by construction equipment. Damage to these pipes could result in escape of natural gas into the atmosphere and to ignite. Natural gas, when released, is more hazardous to life than oil. California Public Utilities Commission has safety jurisdiction and administers the safety of gas pipelines in California.

Major Causes Of Damage

A recent study by the California State Fire Marshal (CSFM) showed that 59 per cent of the failures on oil pipelines in California are the result of corrosion or rust. Damage by construction equipment is the next highest cause of oil pipeline spills.

Damage Prevention Law

To prevent dig-ins, Section 4216 of the California Government Code requires excavators and/or construction contractors to call the Underground Service Alert (USA) 48 hours prior to digging. USA then provides contractors with assistance and pavement markings of underground utilities where an excavation is to take place. Violation of the law carries civil penalties and heavy fines.

Underground Service Alert

The California legislature created the USA notification center to minimize damage to underground utilities caused by the construction industry. USA is a non-profit organization whose members consist of oil companies, gas companies, cable TV, public utilities, cities and other entities that have conduits, cables or pipelines under public streets and private property. It serves as an information center to notify members of any excavation at or near underground installations so utilities might be properly marked and be located on the surface of streets and pavements before any work can begin.

What Should Insurance Companies Know?

As a word of advice, insurance companies for general contractors should be aware of the damage prevention law and to require their insured contractors to have written standard procedures to call USA whenever they engage in excavation work. If this procedure is implemented and monitored properly, it can minimize the risk to the underground facilities and oil pipelines and save the insurance companies millions of dollars in liabilities.


  • As California’s petroleum pipelines age, the public is increasingly concerned about the safety conditions.
  • We know that the safety of underground pipelines has substantially improved over the last 30 to 35 years. However, there is some concern that oil companies’ preventive maintenance and corrosion-control practices have not worked completely in all cases, but nevertheless, pipelines are still the safest and most economical means of transporting oil and gas products compared to transportation by trucks, trains etc.
  • Although the oil and gas utilities companies continue to install new and better pipelines, the major damage to underground oil and gas lines often is caused by contractors who repeatedly violate the state’s damage prevention laws.
  • The insurance companies can help the situation and require contractors to comply with the law. Contractors especially excavators must be required to call USA first before they are allowed to start construction work.
  • Contractors who repeatedly cause damage to underground facilities should be monitored, identified and reported to the California State Contractor’s Board for investigation.
  • Local district attorneys can also be effective in enforcing the state damage prevention law. Offenders should be dealt with more severely and heavier civil penalties and fines should be imposed.

Expert No. 47246, PE (Retired / Inactive) – Degreed civil engineer and a licensed traffic engineer in California with over 40 years of broad professional industry experience. He specialized in safety engineering, oil and gas pipeline safety, prevention of damage to underground facilities, general industry safety standards, and construction safety relating to buildings, roads; pedestrian safety, premises liability, roadways, traffic, accident reconstruction and overhead high voltage lines.

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