Pipes, LDCs Piqued at Being Labeled 'Time Bombs'
Major trade groups for interstate natural gas pipelines and
local distributors last week rallied to defend their members
against allegations that painted them and other energy delivery
systems as ticking "time bombs."
In a joint letter-to-the-editor published in USA Today last
Monday, the presidents of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of
America (INGAA) and the American Gas Association (AGA) responded to
a March 14 article that carried the headline: "When Pipelines Are
Time Bombs: 2 Million Miles of Them Deliver Potential Catastrophe
Every Day." The associations reportedly were more irritated with
the headline than the actual story.
The newspaper article reported there were 3,917 liquid fuel
spills and natural gas leaks by pipelines during the 1990s, roughly
one a day. These incidents mostly involved local distribution
company (LDC) gas lines, and resulted in 201 deaths, 2,826 injuries
and $778 million in property damage, it said.
The story appeared the day after the Senate Commerce Committee
held a field hearing on pipeline safety legislation in Bellingham,
WA. Bellingham was the site of a major product pipeline rupture and
subsequent explosion last summer, which left three dead. Although
the incident involved a product line, the public outcry for greater
safety and government oversight has been directed at all kinds of
energy pipelines, including gas delivery systems.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who has sponsored the Pipeline Safety
Act of 2000 in Congress, testified at the Commerce hearing,
providing an even bleaker estimate for the death toll arising from
pipeline incidents. Since 1986, she said 5,700 pipeline accidents
have occurred, resulting in 325 deaths and 1,500 injuries.
"They have shattered communities from coast to coast. There are
literally hundreds of 'Bellinghams' out there, and there are
hundreds more waiting to happen. On average, there is one reported
pipeline spill in our country every day," she told the Senate
Her pipeline safety legislation has pipeline companies
especially concerned because it would, among other things, expand
the safety-inspection authority of states over all types of pipes.
That would mean pipelines would be hit with a double whammy ---
safety inspections by states and the federal government.
Responding to the USA Today story, INGAA President Jerald V.
Halvorsen and AGA President David N. Parker countered that
pipelines were considered "the nation's safest method of
transporting fuel." They reminded critics that the gas industry
spends more than $2 billion a year to ensure safety, and that a
"great majority" of gas pipeline accidents are caused by careless
digging by third-party contractors, not pipelines. The industry
spearheaded the drive for a national one-call law, which was
enacted in 1998, to address this problem, they wrote.
But the claim that pipelines are the "safest form" of
transportation for fuel falls short, wrote Lois Epstein, senior
engineer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington D.C., in
a separate letter-to-the-editor in USA Today. It "ignores the
environmental damage caused by pipeline ruptures and shifts
attention from what Congress and [the OPS] office could be doing
now to make pipelines safer."
The OPS has come under heavy attack in the wake of the
Bellingham explosion. Jim Hall, chairman of the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the OPS deserves a "grade
of F," according to the USA Today story. He noted the OPS has been
the "most frustrating area" that he's had to deal with since his
term as chairman began in 1994, and that no other agency has a
poorer record of responding to NTSB recommendations.
Moreover, the Inspector General of DOT turned up several
shortcomings in the inspection practices and training of OPS
pipeline inspectors during a recent internal review, which was
conducted at the request of Sen. Murray.