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European oil pipelines increasingly impacted by product theft

16 December 2016

Concawe, the European pipeline safety and environmental monitoring organisation, has collected 44 years of spillage data on European cross-country oil pipelines. This article, based on selected sections of Concawe Report 7/16 - 'Statistical Summary of Reported Spillages in 2014', covers the performance of these pipelines in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, and a full historical perspective since 1971. 

The main feature of the 2014 survey is the continued dramatic rise of spillages related to product theft attempts, 54 of which were reported, confirming the trend already observed in 2013. Excluding theft-related events, 4 spillages were reported in 2014 corresponding to 0.12 spillages per 1,000 km of line, less than the  5-year average of 0.18 and well below the long-term running average of 0.47, which has been steadily decreasing over the years from a value of 1.1 in the mid-70s.

There were no fires, fatalities or injuries connected with these spills. 1 incident was due to mechanical failure and 3 were connected to third party activities (other than theft).


Some 77 companies and agencies operating a total of 37,599 km of oil pipelines in Europe are currently listed in the Concawe annual survey. For 2014, 59 operators provided information representing over 126 pipeline systems and a combined length of 32,021 km. In addition Concawe could confirm from reliable industry sources that another 8 operators did not suffer any spillages in 2014. The reported volume transported in 2014 was 681 Mm3 of crude oil and refined products, close to the 2013 figure. Total traffic volume in 2014 was about

Out of a total of 58 reported spillages in 2014, 54 were related to theft attempts (third party intentional). This is a large increase on the already high figure of 18 reported in 2013. The total number of theft-related spills reported in 2013 and 2014 (72) is more than twice the total number reported between 1971 and 2012 (28), signalling the emergence of product theft as major issue facing European pipeline operators.

Excluding theft-related events, 4 spillages were reported in 2014 corresponding to 0.12 spillages per 1000 km of line, less than the five-year average of 0.18 and below the long-term running average of 0.47, which has been steadily decreasing over the years from a value of 1.1 in the mid-70s. There were no reported fires, fatalities or injuries connected with these spills.

One spill was related to mechanical causes (design and materials) and 3 were caused by third party activities (2 accidental and 1 incidental). Over the long term, third party activities remain the main cause of spillage incidents. Mechanical failure is the second largest cause of spillage.

After great progress during the first 20 years, the frequency of mechanical failures appeared to be on a slightly upward trend over the last decade, although figures from recent years are again low.

The gross spillage volume was 693 m3  or 20 m3 per 1000 km of pipeline compared to the long-term average of 70 m3 per 1000 km of pipeline. 99% of that volume was recovered. These figures do not include product losses due to theft, since in this case the volume removed is usually not known.

Pipelines carrying hot oils such as fuel oil have in the past suffered from external corrosion due to design and construction problems. Most have been shut down or switched to cold service, so that the great majority of pipelines now carry unheated petroleum products and crude oil. Only 51 km of hot oil pipelines are reported to be in service today. The last reported spill from a hot oil pipeline was in 2002.

In 2014 a total of 83 sections covering a total of 8779 km were inspected by at least one type of inspection pig. Most inspection programmes involved the running of more than one type of pig in the same section, so that the total actual length inspected was less at 5324 km (17% of the inventory). 

Most pipeline systems were built in the 1960s and 70s. Whereas, in 1971, 70% of the pipelines in the inventory were 10 years old or less, by 2014 less than 5% were 10 years old or less and 61% were over 40 years old. However, this has not led to an increase in spillages.

Overall, based on the organisation’s incident database and reports, Concawe says there is no evidence that the ageing of the pipeline system implies a greater risk of spillage. The development and use of new techniques, such as internal inspection with inspection pigs, hold out the prospect that pipelines can continue reliable operations for the foreseeable future.

Criteria for inclusion in the survey

The definition  of pipelines  to be  included  in the Concawe  inventory  has remained unchanged since 1971. These are pipelines:

*  Used for transporting crude oil or petroleum products,

*  With a length of 2 km or more in the public domain,

*  Running cross-country, including short estuary or river crossings but excluding under-sea pipeline systems. In particular, lines serving offshore crude oil production facilities and offshore tanker loading/discharge facilities are excluded.

*  Pump stations, intermediate above-ground installations and intermediate storage facilities are included, but origin and destination terminal facilities and tank farms are excluded.

The minimum reportable spillage size has been set at 1 m3  (unless exceptional safety or environmental consequences are reported for a <1 m3  spill). All the above criteria are critical parameters to consider when comparing different spillage data sets, as different criteria can significantly affect the results.

The geographical region covered was originally consistent with Concawe’s original terms  of  reference i.e. OECD Western Europe, which then included 19 member countries, although Turkey was never covered. From 1971 to 1987, only pipelines owned by oil industry companies were included, but from 1988, non-commercially owned pipeline systems (essentially NATO) were brought into the inventory.

Following the reunification of Germany, the pipelines in former East Germany (DDR) were added to the database from 1991. This was followed by Czech and Hungarian crude and product lines in 2001, Slovakian crude and product lines in 2003 and Croatian crude lines in 2007.

Although Concawe cannot guarantee that every single pipeline meeting the above criteria is actually covered, it is believed that most such lines operated in the reporting countries are included. Notable exceptions are NATO lines in Italy, Greece, Norway and Portugal as well as all crude and product pipelines in Poland.

Age distribution

When the Concawe survey was first performed in 1971, the pipeline system was comparatively new, with some 70% being 10 years old or less. Although the age distribution was quite wide, the oldest pipelines were in the 26-30 year age bracket and represented only a tiny fraction of the inventory.

Figure 1: European pipeline age distribution in 2014
Figure 1: European pipeline age distribution in 2014

Over the years, a number of new pipelines have been commissioned, while older ones have been taken out of service. As mentioned above, existing lines were also added to the inventory at various  stages, contributing their specific age profile. Although some short sections may have been renewed, there has been no large-scale replacement of existing lines.

The system has been progressively ageing. The 2014 age distribution is shown on Figure 1 both for discreet age brackets and cumulatively: only 1703 km, i.e. 4.7% of the total, was 10 years old or less while 22,745 km (61.0%) was over 40 years old. 

Fatalities and injuries

No spillage-related fatalities or injuries were reported in 2014.

Over the 44 reporting years there have been a total of 14 fatalities in five separate incidents in 1975, 79, 89, 96 and 99. All but one of these fatalities occurred when people were caught in a fire following a spillage. 

In three of the four fire-related incidents the ignition was a delayed event that occurred hours or days after the spillage detection and demarcation of the spillage area had taken place. In one incident involving a spillage of chemical feedstock; naphtha, three people were engulfed in fire, having themselves possibly been the cause of ignition.

In another incident, ignition of spilled crude oil occurred during attempts to repair the damaged pipeline. The repairers escaped but the spread of the fire caught four people who had entered inside the marked spillage boundary some distance away. The third incident also involved a maintenance crew (five people) carrying out repair activities following a crude oil spill, none of whom escaped.

These fatalities all occurred after the spillage flows had been stemmed, i.e. during the subsequent incident management and reinstatement period. In all three cases the fatalities were not directly caused by the spillages but by fires occurring during the remediation process.

Stronger management of spillage area security and working procedures might well have prevented these fires and subsequent fatalities. 

In just one case, fire ensued almost immediately when a bulldozer doing construction work hit and ruptured a gasoline pipeline. A truck driver engaged in the works received fatal injuries.

The single non-fire fatality was a person engaged in a theft attempt who was unable to escape from a pit which he had dug to expose and drill into the pipeline. This caused a leak that filled the pit with product in which the person drowned. 

A total of 3 injuries have been reported over the years. Single non-fatal injuries were recorded in both 1988 and 1989, both resulting from inhalation / ingestion of oil spray/aerosol. There was one injury to a third party in 2006.


There was no spillage-related fire reported in 2014. Apart from those mentioned above, five other fires are on record:

*  A large crude oil spill near a motorway probably ignited by the traffic.

*  A gasoline theft attempt in a section of pipeline located on a pipe bridge. The perpetrators may have deliberately ignited it.

*  A slow leak in a crude production line in a remote country area found to be burning when discovered. It could have been ignited purposely to limit the pollution.

*  A tractor and plough that had caused a gasoline spill caught fire, and the fire also damaged a house and a railway line.

*  A mechanical digger damaged a gasoline pipeline and also an electricity cable, which ignited the spill. 

There were no casualties reported in any of these incidents. 

2014 Spillage incidents

58 spillage incidents were recorded in 2014, 54 of which were related to theft attempts (third party intentional).

Theft attempt from pipelines has been a concern in recent  years, causing a small number of spillages in 2011 and 2012. The number jumped to 18 in 2013 and the 2014 figure of 54 confirms that this is a fast increasing problem. While theft tended in the past to be an issue in Southern and Eastern Europe, it is also notable that no areas are now immune to it.

The circumstances of each spill, including information on consequences and remediation actions are described in the next section according to cause.

Mechanical Failure

There was one spillage incident related to Design and Materials in 2014.

Event 532: Following a pressure surge, a relief valve opened and product was sent to the waste tank. The level detector of this waste tank did not work properly and the tank overflowed. Most of the product was recovered from the facility. Some was recovered from contaminated soil with a small amount probably lost to air.

Operational activities, corrosion and natural causes

Figure 2 - 44-year trend of the spillage frequency (all pipelines) Excluding theft
Figure 2 - 44-year trend of the spillage frequency (all pipelines) Excluding theft

There were no spillages in these categories in 2014.

Third party spillage incidents

There were 57 spillage incidents in this category in 2014, 54 of which were the result of product theft or theft attempts. Figure 2 (right) shows that the 5-year frequency moving average spillage frequency (excluding theft) has reduced from around 1.1 in the mid 70s to 0.2 spills per year per 1000 km of pipeline in 2014.

1. Accidental

Event 525: During digging activities in a pumping station a 3/4" connection was damaged by either the excavation worker or through ground movement due to digging. This caused an initial leak. Due to the 50 bar pressure the pipe subsequently broke off completely. Contaminated soil was removed but none of the leaked oil could be recovered. The building and pump houses were cleaned.

Event 526: A gasoline line was punctured by a third party contractor during excavation activities. About 5,000 tons of soil, mostly sand, were removed to clean up the area and virtually all leaked oil was recovered.

2. Incidental

Event 537: A leak developed in an underground section of a crude oil pipeline. Upon investigation, significant mechanical damage was found in the upper part of the pipe most probably the result an external physical contact (heavy caterpillar, tractor, or equivalent) some years ago. This led to a progressive development of longitudinal stress corrosion cracks in the upper geometry of the pipe. 

3. Intentional

All incidents in this category were the result of thefts or theft attempts.

Event 527: Following a call from a third party a 5m hose was found near the pipeline with signs of a jet fuel leakage. Full emergency response procedures were implemented, the pipeline was shut down, depressurised and drain down initiated. Excavation at the site revealed an illegal clamp fitted onto the pipeline and leaking. Some surface water in drainage ditches was contaminated and cleaned up with absorbents. Contaminated soil was bio-remediated to "food" standards.

Event 528: During maintenance activities on a crude pipeline, a leaking illegal tapping device was discovered. The damaged pipe section was replaced. Change of soil.

Event 529: While digging a trench in preparation for planned pipeline maintenance work the operator of the digging company registered a sudden release of product from the trench. The spill was obviously caused by deliberate third party interference. Further details cannot yet be revealed due to ongoing authority investigations.

Event 530: A passer-by reported hydrocarbon presence on the ground in a forested area. Pumping was stopped immediately and isolation valves were closed. Pipeline operator personnel as well as the local fire brigade attended the site. Excavation revealed a leaking illegal clamp installed on the line (of a type not suitable high pressure pipelines). The clamp and tapping were removed and the pipeline repaired. The spilled product was contained in ditches, pumped into tank trucks and sent to the operator’s facilities. Contaminated soil was removed and treated.

Event 531: The pipeline control centre detected a loss of pressure in the pipeline. Pumping was stopped, isolation valves closed and local residents were notified. A search party followed the route of the pipeline, identified the location of the leak and excavated. An illegal clamp fitted with a connection and a leaking valve was found. The spilled product was confined to a ditch. Tools, hoses and equipment for illegal tapping were found in a building nearby. The clamp and tapping were removed and the pipeline repaired.  Contaminated soil was removed and treated.

Event 533: The pipeline control centre received a call from the local authorities reporting a hydrocarbon smell in the vicinity of the pipeline. Pumping was stopped, isolation valves closed and local residents were notified. A search party followed the route of the pipeline and found an illegal connection point in a ditch. The valve had been broken, seemingly by some form of digging machine. The tapping was removed and the pipeline repaired. Contaminated soil was removed and treated.

Event 534: A member of the public called in to report the presence of hydrocarbons in the vicinity of the pipeline. The pipeline was immediately shutdown and emergency plans activated. The site was excavated and an illegal clamp and connection were found. The clamp failed under pressure leaking fuel to a ditch. The clamp and tapping were removed and the pipeline repaired. Contaminated soil was removed.

Event 535: A leaking illegal connection fitted with a plastic hose was discovered and removed. Contaminated soil was removed.

Event 536: The leak detection system identified a possible leak in a certain area. The exact location was found, revealing an illegal excavation and a tapping into the pipeline. The tapping was removed and the pipeline repaired. Most of contaminated soil was removed and the final cleaning plan has  to be approved by public authority.

Figure 3 - 44-year trend of the spillage frequency (all pipelines) Including theft
Figure 3 - 44-year trend of the spillage frequency (all pipelines) Including theft

Event 538: Ploughing equipment operating in a field damaged a hydraulic hose attached to an illegal tapping into a pipeline causing a leak. The tapping was removed and the pipeline repaired. Long term monitoring of groundwater contamination via an array of deep boreholes was put into place.

Events 539 to 556: 17 theft attempts in above ground sections of pipelines, resulting in, mostly minor, spillages.

Event 557 to 582: 27 theft attempts in underground sections of pipelines, resulting in, mostly minor, spillages.

2010-2014 spillage overview

At 58 the total number of reported spillages in 2014 was the highest since Concawe records began in 1971 (see Figure 3 left). The statistics are, however, entirely skewed by the 54 theft-related incidents.

Although such events have been recorded in the past, they were few and far between until an entirely new trend began to emerge at the beginning of the decade. The number in 2014 is unprecedented, representing 40% of all such cases reported since 1971. When excluding these theft-related events, the 4 remaining 2014 spillages fall well within the long term decreasing trend. It is below the 6.2 spillages per year average for the last 5 years and well below the long term average of 11.0. 

Some temporary environmental contamination was reported for 37 incidents although no information was provided for the majority of the 2014 theft-related incidents.

6 spillages affected surface waters and 6 affected groundwater but none had  any impact on potable water supplies.

Historical analysis of spillages 1971-2014

Over the 44-year survey period there have been a total of 582 spillage incidents; 482 when excluding product theft. 67 of these spillages occurred in "hot" pipelines, a disproportionately large proportion in relation to the share of such pipelines in the total inventory (note that such hot pipelines have now virtually disappeared from the active inventory with only 51 km left in operation).

There was a long-term downward trend in total spillages per year, which bears witness to the industry’s improved control of pipeline integrity, switching to an upward trend in 2012 due to the sudden rise in product theft. 

The  overall  5-year  moving  average,  excluding  theft,  has decreased from about 18 spillages per year in the early 1970s to 6.2 in 2014.

The spillage frequency i.e. number of spills per unit length of pipeline is the most meaningful metric. Figures 2 and 3 (above) show data expressed in spillages per 1000 km of pipeline (as per the reporting inventory in each year).

Figure 4 - Distribution of major and secondary spillage causes – All pipelines
Figure 4 - Distribution of major and secondary spillage causes – All pipelines

Figure 4 (right) shows the distribution of primary and secondary causes for all pipelines, illustrating again the prominent impact of corrosion for hot pipelines. Secondary causes are unremarkably distributed except perhaps for  the large proportion of accidental causes within third party-related incidents (largely related to excavations).



While operators of oil pipelines have made successful efforts to reduce spillages over the last 44 years, the increasing age of the pipeline inventory and the potential integrity issues that could be related to such ageing infrastructure will be the focus of future debate.

The Concawe report shows that this, and the continued dramatic rise of spillages related to product theft attempts, need to be at the forefront of operators’ thoughts and efforts in future.

For the report on which this article is based (07/16), and others relating to the European downstream oil industry, go to

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