Operator Error Caused 400,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Outside Midland, Texas

EnLink Midstream’s Chickadee pipeline ruptured on March 29, 2023, causing one of the largest oil spills in the past decade in Texas. An incident report blames the massive spill on “incorrect operation.”

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In a 2018 file photo, workers in Midland, Texas, extracting oil from oil wells in the Permian Basin. Credit: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images.
In a 2018 file photo, workers in Midland, Texas, extracting oil from oil wells in the Permian Basin. Credit: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images.

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Operator errors caused 402,486 gallons of crude oil to gush out of an EnLink Midstream pipeline south of Midland, Texas on the night of March 29. 

The EnLink incident is one of over 100 crude oil spills in Texas reported to federal regulators since Jan. 1, 2022. But the size of the EnLink spill—which would have been enough to fill 50 oil tanker trucks—sets it apart. It was the largest crude oil spill in the Permian Basin, and the fourth largest spill on land in Texas, since 2010.  

According to an incident report submitted to federal regulators, operators overpressurized the pipeline, causing it to rupture. Operators did not shut down the flow for nearly three hours after the pipeline’s leak detection alarm went off. PHMSA’s investigation into the spill is ongoing and the company could face civil penalties or other enforcement actions if violations of pipeline safety regulations are identified, an agency spokesperson said.

“EnLink is largely done with the clean-up efforts related to this spill,” said Megan Wright, EnLink’s director of corporate communications. “EnLink always strives to prevent any spill and release, and, should they occur, our highly trained team works to minimize adverse impacts.”


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Pipeline safety groups and oil and gas watchdog organizations said the spill represents broader problems with the pipeline industry and how it is regulated. 

“All too often pipeline operators seem to get complacent in their operations and continue to hit the snooze button on leak detection alarm, all the while dumping hazardous product into the local ecosystem, breaking the public’s trust,” said Bill Caram, the Pipeline Safety Trust’s executive director. 

Incident Report Describes Multiple Operator Errors

EnLink Midstream, headquartered in Dallas, operates midstream assets in the Permian Basin, Oklahoma, North Texas and the Gulf Coast and has over 12,000 miles of pipelines nationwide. 

The company announced expansion of the Greater Chickadee crude oil pipeline network in the Permian Basin’s Upton and Midland Counties in 2018. These pipelines transport crude oil from Permian Basin drilling sites. The pipeline that ruptured was manufactured in 2021 and installed in 2022.

Pipeline regulation in Texas is divided between the Railroad Commission and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Large pipeline spills must be reported to PHMSA. 

EnLink completed its incident report to PHMSA on April 17. The report explains that on March 29 at 8:36 p.m. a pipeline controller switched the flow of crude oil “on the fly” from the delivery point to the El Dorado Crude Station, 11 miles south of Midland, Texas, without lowering the pressure or flow rate. The report states “this method is not in alignment with control room procedure and training.” 

The high pressure caused the pipeline to fail, “allowing crude oil to flow freely onto the ground.” When the controller resumed flow at 8:52 p.m. the leak detection system identified a potential leak. However, the operator did not investigate the alarm, as company procedure requires. Crude oil continued to flow through the ruptured pipeline until the station was shut down at 11:26 p.m.

The company reported spilling 9,583 barrels of crude oil, or 402,486 gallons, and only recovered 720, or 30,240 gallons. EnLink reported an estimated $1.3 million in losses and damages from the spill. 

In a statement, EnLink’s Wright said, “Upon identifying a likely spill event, our operators acted promptly to shut down the pipeline to stop the flow of oil, and our environmental team quickly began remediation efforts, which included vacuuming up crude oil and following remediation guidelines for dirt in the impacted area, including conducting soil samples.”

The spill began at the El Dorado crude station, but “flowed or migrated off the property,” according to the incident report. The Permian Basin is where the Texas High Plains meet the Chihuahuan Desert. While oil and gas infrastructure dominates the region, its vegetation is anchored by native grasses, mesquite and yucca. 

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The incident report states that the spill did not impact any bodies of water or wildlife. Crude oil spills on land can prevent the soil from absorbing water, cause harm to vegetation and seep into the water table. A Railroad Commission spokesperson said the agency has inspected the site and is monitoring clean-up, but has not issued any notices of violation at this point.

Tate Owen, Midland County public information officer, said the spill had not been reported to the county’s environmental unit. 

Watchdog Group Says Pipeline Safety is Lacking

Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, an organization focused on reforming the Railroad Commission, said pipeline leaks and damages are “extremely common” in Texas. She noted that each month the Railroad Commission issues hundreds of penalties for pipeline incidents.

“Unfortunately, this enforcement method isn’t working to prevent pipeline leaks and protect the environment,” Palacios said. “We need the RRC to think of new ways to prevent spills and leaks, and not just react after something bad happens.”

“We hope the Texas Railroad Commission will thoroughly investigate this spill and hold the pipeline operator accountable for cleanup and any violations that might have led to this incident,” said Brendan Gibbons, a Texas-based spokesperson for the Environmental Integrity Project.

Other recent oil spills in Texas include Flint Hill Resources spilling 14,000 gallons into Corpus Christi Bay in December 2022, a spill in Liberty County on January 27 by Jay Management, and the Shell Pipeline Company spilling 1,260 gallons into Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Orange, Texas on April 26.

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