The Great Irony

The Great Irony: Are Excavation Activities Related to Oil and Gas Field Expansion Damaging Pipelines?

Oil and gas activity is synonymous with excavation. Drilling pad preparation, pipeline construction and maintenance, and a host of other work requires digging into the ground. Yet, as drilling has become a well-planned activity, tested operational procedures have served to ensure excavation activities do not result in damages to underground infrastructure. But the curious data related to oil and gas operations may be hinting that excavation work ancillary to that industry is not as well tested nor organized. Worse, that work may actually be damaging the very industry it is supporting.

Petroleum Liquid & Natural Gas Pipeline Damage Due to Excavation Incidents 2011-2018 Correlated to Oil & Gas Drilling Operations
Petroleum Liquid & Natural Gas Pipeline Damage Due to Excavation Incidents 2011-2018 Correlated to Oil & Gas Drilling Operations


It is reported that more than 2.4 million miles of liquid (crude, refined products) and natural gas pipelines cross every state in the union. When careless excavation activity meet those lines, the results can be catastrophic. In Texas alone, between 2010 and 2018, there were 109 excavation-caused incidents resulting in damage to oil and gas pipelines which led to the loss of 25,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 75,000 barrels of oil (29k were recovered). Total estimated cost of damages in Texas exceeded $104 million dollars. Nationally, according to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) DIRT Report (Damage Information Reporting Tool), damage to buried utilities cost $1.5 billion in 2016.

While telecommunications infrastructure suffered the most number of incidents at 47%, natural gas pipeline infrastructure incidents represented 26% of the total 316,442 reported incidents resulting in damage in the underground excavation industry in 2017. Certainly, injury and fatalities can occur in any incident that results in damage, but this is especially true in the energy industry as excavation-related pipeline incidents resulted in 19 fatalities and 43 injuries from 2002 to 2018.


Though such data is not directly correlated to oil and gas drilling work, it is notable that 17% of those excavation-related incidents resulting in damage in 2017 occurred in five of the top six oil producing states. Certainly, Texas makes up a majority of that statistic as construction in the state has moved at a frantic pace inside and outside of the petroleum industry. But other data may be suggesting that non-O/G related excavation work being done to meet the infrastructure needs for oil and gas production development may ironically be causing damage to oil and gas infrastructure.

Data provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Pipeline Mapping System database indicates that between 2002 and 2018, 568 incidents where natural gas or petroleum liquids pipelines were damaged occurred as a direct result of excavation activities. When looking at a map of those specific incidents, a possible correlation can be drawn between those incidents and the location of major oil and gas drilling work in the United States.

Certainly, oil and gas basins straddle developed areas where normal excavation activities take place. But of particular note is the high number of occurrences in the Permian Basin in West Texas and the Williston, North Dakota area of the Bakken oil play. As these areas are more sparsely populated and thus less developed, the high density of pipeline damage incidents may indicate a correlation to drilling activity. In the Permian alone, over 400,000 wells have been drilled.

Narrative information from USDOT on excavation-caused damages to pipelines show little direct correlation to actual well drilling activity. Regardless, as oil and gas drilling has ebbed and flowed in recent years, so has the number of excavation events resulting in damage to pipelines. But the potential evidence must be understood.

Petroleum Liquid & Natural Gas Pipeline Damage Incidents Compared to Drilling Rig Counts 2011-2018
Petroleum Liquid & Natural Gas Pipeline Damage Incidents Compared to Drilling Rig Counts 2011-2018

Resulting infrastructure buildouts in oil and gas drilling hot-zones has been fast paced. Cities like Williston, which has doubled in population in the past 10 years, have required massive infrastructure expansion to provide housing, commercial services, and utilities.

Construction trends lag behind drilling development trends by several months. As oil and gas activities ramp up, supporting infrastructure construction follows, but planning and permitting takes time. In this context, increases in excavation- related damages to pipelines would follow roughly a year behind increases in drilling activity. The data seems to bear this out. When drilling rig counts dropped by 90% in 2016, excavation damage events to pipelines only dropped by 19% that same year. But a year later in 2017, excavation damage events to pipelines dropped by 75%. That same year, drilling activity ramped up again as the average rig count increased by 41.9%. The following year, 2018, excavation damage events to pipelines increased by 40%.

“Narrative information from USDOT on excavation-caused damages to pipelines show little direct correlation to actual well drilling activity.”


Still, the data is not clearly showing that ancillary excavation work in support of O/G infrastructure needs is the primary driver of pipeline damages. Though reportable by “type” (such as utility work), the data does not reveal what economic driver has resulted in such activity. Regardless, the indicators previously mentioned should perhaps be at the least a distant alarm call for both the excavation industry and the oil and gas industry to seek definitive answers. If O/G expansion is in fact resulting in more damage to the very infrastructure it depends on, solutions need to be found.


Damage prevention is the shared responsibility of every worker onsite and everyone responsible for the management of safety practices and procedures offsite. The cliché notion of the weakest link in a chain as defining the total strength of a chain applies. But those links are not simply comprised of workers’ performance on the job; they are also comprised of training practices, policies, and procedures as the leading cause of a majority of those 316,442 reported incidents in 2017 according to CGA’s DIRT Report were related to insufficient excavation practices (52%).

According to the CGA report, recordable instances where damage occurred by “excavator type” (ie. who is performing the work) reveals the significant impact of contractors across several industries including the energy industry and public utilities. That report indicates contractors were involved in roughly 61% of those total 316,442 incidents.

Though some states with intensive oil and gas operations typically bucked those national trends, two did not. In North Dakota, 90% of excavation damages were to natural gas or liquid pipelines. Some 91% of those incidents were caused by contractors. In Colorado, 80% of all excavation damages were caused by contractors.

Contractors are the backbone of oil and gas development work and they are a vital player in other industries. As damage prevention is a shared responsibility, both contractor and contracting company must reconsider how they interface within a set of shared operating parameters to ensure damages are minimized, safety is maximized, and the nation’s O/G infrastructure is protected.

Eric Sharpe is editor of Energy Ink Magazine. For more information visit

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