The nation's aging oil pipelines are roughly 70 times safer than trucks when it comes to transporting fuel. But when a pipeline does fail, the consequences can be catastrophic
Hazardous liquid lines in red, gas transmission lines in blue. Image: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
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 – 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, minimal 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.