Alert: Are the Nation’s Pipelines Safe?

Are the Nation's Pipelines Safe?

At present, 2.5 million miles of existing natural gas pipelines exist in the United States, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. With the share of natural gas used to fuel power plants expected to keep rising, gas producers are saying that between 29,000 and 62,000 miles of new pipeline is needed over the next 25 years.

But are they safe?

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline may be the embodiment of how our government monitors and rubber-stamps America’s pipelines. The $5.1 billion project would feed the energy appetites of the mid-Atlantic states, but it is opposed by environmental groups.

“The federal government is glossing over the massive impacts this 600-mile pipeline would have on neighboring communities and climate change,” said Alison Kelly, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Green-lighting this pipeline without a sufficient review of the damage it would cause is a disservice to the people who live in its path and treasure this part of Appalachia.”

Oil and gas industry representatives have long argued that pipelines are safer than other methods for moving fossil fuels over long distances.

But new data crunched by watchdog groups raise questions about the industry’s optimistic pipeline safety claims — at least in terms of the frequency of pipeline spills and the pollution they emit to the environment.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and DisasterMap.net released an analysis that focuses specifically on pipelines and other facilities operated by Energy Transfer Partners and its Sunoco subsidiary. A publicly-traded Fortune 500 company, Energy Transfer Partners operates some 71,000 miles of pipelines across the U.S. The groups looked at all of the spills companies by those names reported as required to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center in 2015 and 2016.

There were 69 spills in all, an average of almost three a month. But of those, only two were from mobile sources — one involving a flaming truck at a tank farm in Michigan that sent an unknown amount of pollution billowing into the air, the other a spill of a couple of gallons of crude oil from a vacuum truck in Pennsylvania. There were an additional seven spills from storage tanks and another 25 from various fixed sources like mechanical equipment and compressor stations.

Over half of the companies’ reported spills — 35 in all — were pipeline-related. The pipeline spills also released the most pollution into the environment, at over 111,000 gallons, compared to just two gallons from mobile sources. (The groups excluded from their analysis a reported 8,600-barrel air release from a liquefied natural gas pipeline, since such releases are more commonly measured in pounds or tons; that means the total amount spilled from pipelines is even higher.)

Of the 111,000 gallons of pollution released in the Energy Transfer Partners/Sunoco pipeline spills, over 18,000 gallons flowed into waterways such as ponds, creeks and rivers. The magnitude of the spills varied from a cup of crude oil pouring into the Neches River in Texas due to equipment failure to 200 barrels of crude oil flowing into an Oklahoma creek from a broken pipeline.

Among the other pipeline incidents the companies reported:

  • a rupture at a natural gas pipeline in South Texas that led to the evacuation of seven homes and sparked flames that could be seen 20 miles away;
  • a leak from an abandoned 6-inch pipeline in Oklahoma that resulted in crude oil flowing in a ditch for a couple of miles before coating a pond;
  • a leak of a natural gas pipeline under Louisiana’s Red River, which serves as a drinking water source for communities.

At 6:11 p.m. on September 6, 2010, San Bruno, Calif. 911 received an urgent call. A gas station had just exploded and a fire with flames reaching 300 feet was raging through the neighborhood. The explosion was so large that residents suspected an airplane crash. But the real culprit was found underground: a ruptured pipeline spewing natural gas caused a blast that left behind a 72 foot long crater, killed eight people, and injured more than fifty.

Over 2,000 miles away in Michigan, workers were still cleaning up another pipeline accident, which spilled 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. Estimated to cost $800 million, the accident is the most expensive pipeline spill in U.S. history.

Over the last few years a series of incidents have brought pipeline safety to national – attention.

Since 1986, pipeline accidents have killed hundreds of people, injured over 4,000, and cost nearly seven billion dollars in property damages. Using government data, ProPublica has mapped thousands of these incidents in a new interactive news application, which provides detailed information about the cause and costs of reported incidents going back nearly three decades.

Pipelines break for many reasons – from the slow deterioration of corrosion to equipment or weld failures to construction workers hitting pipes with their excavation equipment. Unforeseen natural disasters also lead to dozens of incidents a year. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the natural gas pipelines on New Jersey’s barrier islands. From Bay Head to Long Beach Island, falling trees, dislodged homes and flooding caused more than 1,600 pipeline leaks.

Is there a solution?

Simply put, utility companies and pipeline operators must be more diligent in maintaining their network of lines. Unfortunately, like so often in life, it is cheaper for the utilities to pay damages than to replace the pipelines (Remember Ford Motor Company and the ill-fated Pinto with the exploding gas tank? Memos showed that Ford executives knew of the dangers, but surmised that paying off death claims was cheaper than fixing the cars).

There are systems that help utility companies perform better inspections, and monitor fieldworkers to assure that inspections have been completed, but to date, few utilities have employed these tools or technologies.

AyaWorks is a software and consulting company that provides tools that connect the office to the field, assuring that utility company managers have real-time information about potential leaks and pipeline service issues. The company’s pipeline Integrity Management Program helps pipeline operators identify and evaluate or repair and validate the integrity of gas transmission pipelines that could, in the event of a leak or failure, affect civilian populations.

Ultimately, it becomes an economic issue. Without government intervention, which is unlikely, utility companies must take it upon themselves to invest in the tools and technologies that help improve pipeline and consumer safety.