by Henry Apfel April 23rd, 2012
A study released by the Congressional Research Service on U.S. energy pipeline management and security says that despite potential vulnerability to accidental malfunction or purposeful sabotage, the risk of a terrorist threat is low, but safety oversight could be improved, particularly by beefing up staffing of inspectors. Roughly 170,000 miles of pipeline in the United States carry material that is toxic, flammable, or otherwise dangerous, including approximately 75% of the nation’s crude oil. Around 200 interstate pipelines account for about 80% of United States pipeline use.
Vast network, some fatal accidents, property damage
Overall, pipeline discharges cause few deaths. Hazardous liquid pipelines caused an average of 1.8 fatalities yearly from 2006 to 2010, while natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline accidents caused an average of 3.0 and 9.8 deaths yearly over the same time period. However, an individual pipeline accident can cause significant damage and loss of life. A gasoline pipeline in Bellingham, Washington, exploded in 1999, killing three people and causing millions of dollars in property damage. In 2000, a natural gas pipeline exploded near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and killed 12 campers. Pipeline breakages can release of thousands of gallons of hazardous material; a leak caused by corrosion on the North Slope of Alaska released more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil in 2006, and in 2011 a pipeline spill in Montana released approximately 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.
Following is a mapped data visualization of U.S. pipeline accidents from 2008-10 that caused fatalities and/or more than $5 million USD of damage. Click on individual points to see more data; click and drag to move the map. Click on the +/- signs to zoom in or out. Click the “x” to close a pop-up box.
Pipeline security threats elsewhere, but not so much in U.S.
Pipelines may also be vulnerable to purposeful sabotage; in the case of certain pipelines, this may even extend to computer-based attacks. Groups in Mexico, Colombia, and Nigeria have made efforts to bomb pipelines in their respective countries, and pipelines in British Columbia were bombed six times between 2008 and 2009. While pipelines make tempting targets, the United States has not experienced a major attack by an individual or group on its pipelines. According to the CRS report, recent threat assessments indicate that, realistically speaking, the risk of a foreign or domestic terrorist attack on U.S. pipelines is very low.
A series of oversight laws have been passed
Under the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-481) and the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-129) state that the Transportation Secretary has authority to regulate the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and response planning for interstate pipelines. A presidential decision during the Clinton administration assigned main responsibility for pipeline security to the Department of Transportation, while the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-355) created an inter-agency committee meant to streamline the review process for new pipelines. The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act also included “whistle blower” protection and required that operators of regulated natural gas pipelines in high-consequence areas to implement risk analysis and management procedures similar to those used for oil pipelines.
Additionally, President Bush established the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2004 within the Department of Transportation. President Bush also signed into law the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act of 2006 (PIPES Act, P.L. 109-468). This bill created a program of grants given to states for damage prevention efforts. It also mandated a minimum standard for integrity management of natural gas pipelines. Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration was created and given the authority to handle pipeline security operations.
Pipeline safety inspector staffing a challenge
Due to a relative dearth of qualified applicants, delays in the hiring process, and inspector turnover, the PHMSA inspector program is often understaffed. The recession has also affected PHMSA, forcing numerous budget cuts and preventing expanded inspector hiring, according to the CRS.
Automatic shut-off valves not mandated by DOT
The TSA also requires greater resources for pipeline security, since air transportation has received comparatively enormous amounts of money and personnel. In order to more fully secure pipelines, some have argued for the installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves; particularly since the San Bruno incident of 2010 in which a natural gas pipeline exploded, killing eight people. However, the DOT concluded that automatic shutoff valves would not activate in time to stop an explosion and would be susceptible to false alarms. Such installations would also require significant investments in time and capital, and would probably raise transmission rates for all concerned. However, the PHMSA mandated that all single-family homes recieve excess flow valves, which can minimize the amount of natural gas that escapes in the event of a leak.
Some issues still remain. New regulations may be required since oil sands, often imported from Canada, are significantly more corrosive to current pipe materials. Maintenance of accurate, complete, and current pipeline system records is difficult, and debates over the best practices for pipeline inspection continue. Overall, however, industries and federal agencies have generally increased pipeline safety over the past decade.