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Pipeline Eruptions Causing Fiery Debate over Safety

When a 20-inch natural gas pipeline burst and ignited a massive fire outside of Charleston, WV, it took the energy company there more than 60 minutes to manually shut down the line. To improve response times, a government watchdog agency is suggesting the use of automated valves.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is saying in a just-released analysis that government officials in charge of inspecting pipeline safety should be required to provide the necessary data so that monitors can help them improve their response times and the subsequent results. Automated valves, for example, would permit natural gas companies to turn off the gas within minutes of an incident.

However, those high-tech devices would add cost to utility services and they, too, have issues tied to unnecessarily stopping services. GAO says that the price tag is high and can range from $35,000 to $500,000 for parts and installation.

But the GAO still says that pipeline operators could develop performance-based approaches to improve response times. Two ways: Detailing what types of valves they are using and outlining the distance between an incident and the required personnel. At the same time, events such as weather conditions are beyond a company’s control. The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees this field.

The agency “must first improve the data it collects on incident response times,” says GAO. “These data are not reliable both because operators are not required to fill out certain time-related fields in the reporting form and because operators told us they interpret these data fields in different ways.”

The December 11, 2012 pipeline rupture in Sissonville, WV destroyed four homes but no one was injured. The line is owned Texas-based NiSource Gas Transmission and is operated by its subsidiary Columbia Gas Transmission. While the official cause of the accident is still under review, the preliminary findings indicate that the line had corroded.

Altogether, GAO says that 2.5 million miles of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines exist in the United States. That also includes more than 400,000 miles of transmission pipelines that transport products from processing facilities to communities and large-volume users.

“We have miles and miles of pipeline beneath our feet,” says Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV. “Responding to an accident quickly and efficiently is absolutely essential to keeping the public safe.”

Paying for Upgrades

The explosion in West Virginia comes about two years after one in Northern California. There, a pipeline owned by PG&E erupted, killing nine people and destroying 38 homes. In that situation, the National Transportation Safety Board assigned much of the blame on the utility, saying that it had no methods in place to detect structural weaknesses in its pipeline. It also said that the PG&E did not have shut-off valves that would have limited the explosion’s severity.

U.S. lawmakers from California then proposed strengthening the pipeline rules. A safety law that passed in 2002 -- and updated in 2006 and again in 2011 -- has been working to speed up the frequency with which such lines were inspected as well as to impose tougher financial penalties. But critics have complained that the networks are too vast for them to be properly inspected.

For its part, the pipeline industry says that most of the accidents that occur do so outside the purview of the operator. It says that such factors as “excavation” account for most incident reports while 10 percent are the result of “corrosion,” construction or operation of lines.

The discussion over pipeline safety is occurring at a vital time in the nation’s energy evolution -- when shale gas is considered by some as America’s new economic lifeline. As such, the share of natural gas used to fuel power plants is expected to keep rising. That will then require between 29,000 and 62,000 miles of additional pipelines over 25 years, says the Interstate Natural Gas Association.

“We need to educate regulators for the renewal of the system,” says Tony Earley, PG&E’s chief executive. “We need to show them where we have to invest. We can’t run a system until it breaks. If we don’t take care of this and start to upgrade, we will have more tragedies.”

Just who bears the cost of improvements is still an unknown. Pipeline operators and their shareholders will likely shoulder most of the burden. But some of it will fall on their customers, who have a serious stake in improving safety measures. 

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein


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