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DOE: El Paso Blast Reveals Need for 'Modern' Pipes

DOE: El Paso Blast Reveals Need for 'Modern' Pipes

The explosion and fire on El Paso Natural Gas' system in southeast New Mexico in August, which killed 12 people, underscores the need for a newer gas pipeline infrastructure in the United States, according to a Department of Energy (DOE) report released last week.

This was one of many observations made about the natural gas industry and other energy sources in the Sept. 27 DOE report, "Powering the New Economy: Energy Accomplishments, Investments, Challenges."

The El Paso line in New Mexico "was over forty years old and showed evidence of corrosion," the report said. It went on to note the pipeline supplies southern California with a "significant portion" of the gas needed for electric generation, and that the region's gas demand was "temporarily met" by dipping into stored gas following the blast.

This incident shows "we not only need more storage, but ultimately more natural gas supply and modern infrastructures," the DOE concluded.

Preliminary examination of the El Paso pipeline section that failed in Carlsbad, NM, revealed significant internal corrosion and pipe-wall loss in some areas of greater than 50%, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The explosion was the deadliest gas pipeline accident in the United States.

Many of the natural gas transmission pipelines in the U.S. are 30 to 50 years old, the NTSB said. And while age alone does not indicate that a pipeline may be unsafe, the board noted that assessing the integrity of pipelines becomes increasingly more important as pipeline systems age.

The El Paso line that exploded had never been pressure tested for leaks or other structural damage, Bob Chipkevich, director of the NTSB's Office of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety, testified last week before a committee of the New Mexico Legislature, according to a news report in the Albuquerque Journal.

The NTSB has scheduled a Pipeline Safety Hearing for Nov. 14-16 in Washington to review available technologies for assessing pipeline integrity. The hearing is partly in response to six pipeline accidents currently being investigated by the NTSB --- including the Carlsbad blast --- that have raised pipeline integrity issues, it said. More details about the NTSB hearing are available on its web page at

"[D]uring the past two years, we have seen several failures involving aging pipelines. It is time to examine the technologies available to assess the condition of our pipeline systems," said NTSB Chairman Jim Hall.

Separately, the DOE report also said Washington needs to encourage policies and investments that "acknowledge and reflect" the increasing interdependence of the electricity and natural gas infrastructures.

Moreover, federal lawmakers need to provide incentives to promote oil and gas development in the "ultra-deep Gulf of Mexico and in areas to be produced in Alaska," the report said.

Susan Parker

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