Pipeline Safety Advocates Concerned about Lack of Inspectors

  • Photo: Consumers Energy

February 6, 2015

The fracking boom has led to what might seem obvious—an increase in natural gas production. To get that gas to market, more energy companies are building pipelines. Carl Weimer is director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group that works with industry, government and residents around pipeline safety issues and is based in Washington state.

Weimer says there are so many pipelines proposed for in the Northeast, his organization can’t keep track.

Some landowners are opposed to new pipelines because of property rights issues, but safety is also a concern. The Nexus pipeline proposed in Ohio is expected to be up to 42-inches wide, and at a psi—that’s pounds per square inch—of 1500. Weimer says that’s one of the largest of the new transmission pipelines being built. It’s going to be moving a lot of gas at a very high pressure from Ohio into Michigan and Canada.

Weimer says in the Pennsylvania and Ohio region, these larger, higher pressure pipelines are going to be more common because of the abundant shale gas supply.

“The industry is trying to move it to different markets. So they’re building larger and higher pressure pipelines all the time.”

Is it reasonable for landowners to be wary of these higher pressure pipelines? Weimer says while the chance of any of these pipelines failing in any one particular spot is very small, if something does go wrong—like an explosion—the consequences can be tremendous.

“A pipeline much smaller and at much lower pressure than what you’re talking about, the Nexus pipeline, failed in San Bruno, California in 2010, killed eight people and took out a good chunk of a neighborhood there,” Weimer says.

One of Pipeline Safety Trust’s biggest concerns is that there are lots of new pipelines going into the ground, and not enough regulators and inspectors.

“The regulators are really scrambling to try to keep up,” Weimer says.

He says the state and federal regulators are spread so thin that they’re not able to inspect how the pipelines are going into the ground, or even able to determine how they are being inspected and maintained after the pipelines are in operation.

Weimer says his organization is also concerned that there are multiple companies trying to place different pipelines in the same spaces, or corridors—and that’s taking up more green space. However, some landowners are pushing for these “safety corridors” where multiple pipelines would be routed away from residential areas.

Weimer says Pipeline Safety Trust thinks this can be a good idea. Such pipeline highways are already happening in parts of Texas. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which approves new pipelines, encourages companies to share right-of-ways for new pipelines. The practice could reduce risk, as pipelines would most likely run past fewer homes.

Weimer says while most new pipeline plans are approved by FERC, citizen comments and input have value.

“You may not be able to make the pipeline go away, but you could steer the pipeline into different areas. you can get different safety considerations, different types of constructions,” Weimer says.

He says Congress and the National Transportation Safety Board have asked for measures to reduce risk and improve pipeline safety. Their recommendations include better leak detection and better valve placement, so that if something does go wrong, the pipeline can be shut off.

Weimer says many local communities aren’t prepared for potential problems or emergencies  when pipeline construction comes to their area. The pipeline companies are supposed to coordinate emergency planning with local governments. He says industry has been more proactive about communicating with local officials, but local governments often have a lot on their plates, and there is no way to know if this is happening as often as it should. Weimer says it’s common for local governments to be in the dark about pipelines that may be running right through their communities.

“Pipelines have been kind of out of sight, out of mind, and they haven’t paid a lot of attention.”