How safe are 2.5 million miles of pipelines?

Map of major natural gas and oil pipelines in the United States. Hazardous liquid lines in red, gas transmission lines in blue. Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

At 6:11 p.m. on September 6, 2011, 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 – and presidential – attention. As Obama begins his second term he will likely make a key decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed pipeline extension to transport crude from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The administration first delayed the permit for the pipeline on environmental grounds, but has left the door open to future proposals for Keystone’s northern route. Construction on the southern route is already underway, sparking fierce opposition from some landowners and environmentalists.

The problem, protesters say, is that any route will pose hazards to the public. While pipeline operator TransCanada has declared that Keystone will be the safest pipeline ever built in North America, critics are skeptical.

“It's inevitable that as pipelines age, as they are exposed to the elements, eventually they are going to spill,” said Tony Iallonardo of the National Wildlife Federation. “They’re ticking time bombs."

Critics of the Keystone proposal point to the hundreds of pipeline accidents that occur every year. They charge that system wide, antiquated pipes, lax oversight and inadequate precautions put the public and the environment at increasing risk. Pipeline operators point to billions of dollars spent on new technologies and a gradual improvement over the last two decades as proof of their commitment to safety.

Pipelines are generally regarded as a safe way to transport fuel, a far better alternative to tanker trucks or freight trains. The risks inherent in transporting fuel through pipelines are analogous to the risks inherent in traveling by airplane. Airplanes are safer than cars, which kill about 70 times as many people a year (highway accidents killed about 33,000 people in 2010, while aviation accidents killed 472). But when an airplane crashes, it is much more deadly than any single car accident, demands much more attention, and initiates large investigations to determine precisely what went wrong.

The same holds true for pipelines. Based on fatality statistics from 2005 through 2009, oil pipelines are roughly 70 times as safe as trucks, which killed four times as many people during those years, despite transporting only a tiny fraction of fuel shipments. But when a pipeline does fail, the consequences can be catastrophic (though typically less so than airplane accidents), with the very deadliest accidents garnering media attention and sometimes leading to a federal investigation.

While both air travel and pipelines are safer than their road alternatives, the analogy only extends so far. Airplanes are replaced routinely and older equipment is monitored regularly for airworthiness and replaced when it reaches its safety limits. Pipelines, on the other hand, can stay underground, carrying highly pressurized gas and oil for decades – even up to a century and beyond. And while airplanes have strict and uniform regulations and safety protocols put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration, such a uniform set of standards does not exist for pipelines.

Critics maintain that while they’re relatively safe, pipelines should be safer. In many cases, critics argue, pipeline accidents could have been prevented with proper regulation from the government and increased safety measures by the industry. The 2.5 million miles of America’s pipelines suffer hundreds of leaks and ruptures every year, costing lives and money. As existing lines grow older, critics warn that the risk of accidents on those lines will only increase.

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