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America's Pipelines Getting Safer? Part One

A recent article in The New York Times addresses the safety of our country's oil and gas pipelines. Pipeline issues have been prominent in the news lately. In June, two separate cases of pipeline injury occurred in Texas within a day of each other, resulting in the deaths of three people. This summer, a pipeline ruptured in Michigan, releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into a river. Finally, a pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, killed eight people.

While these incidents certainly do not instill confidence in our pipeline system, the article says these tragedies are not the norm.

According to experts in the oil and gas industries, advancing technology continues to make pipelines safer. Greg McCormack, the former director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, said the industry has become much more effective in detecting leaks in the last ten years.

Technology seems to be the key. As computer technology improves, so does the speed of data analysis that allows industry workers to detect potential problems such as leaks. Bruce Heine, director of government and media affairs for Magellan Midstream Partners said there have been drastic improvements in centralized pipeline monitoring systems, which provide information on pressure, pump operations and temperature.

Also, in 2002, a law was passed that requires calls to an 811 phone line when there are plans to excavate so there would be an increased awareness about where pipelines were located. The pipeline safety law has been successful, according to Andrew J. Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipelines. The number of third-party pipeline accidents involving hazardous liquids decreased by 66 percent between 2001 and 2008.

In our next blog post, we will continue to evaluate the evidence that pipelines are becoming safer through technology.

Source: The New York Times "Some Exceptions to the Rule, but Pipelines Are Safer," Kate Galbraith, 16 November 2010

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