A rising demand for power worldwide has resulted in a rapidly expanding industry of non-sustainable energy sourcing including fracking and extraction. Pipeline infrastructure, which allows for the movement of fuels such as oil and natural gas, is spread out like a flammable underground spider web across the country and is still growing.
Potential pipeline safety concerns and details of the industry, which moves resources around the country, were the topics of Thursday, May 8, Huxley College Speaker Series lecture.
The speaker series featured county council member Carl Weimer, a Whatcom County Council member and executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.
A growing pipeline industry
Over 2.5 million miles of pipeline are in the United States, which the federal government sets minimum safety standards — standards that if not followed would prevent companies from using the pipelines until they are considered safe, Weimer said.
Congress passed the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety (PIPES) Act of 2006, outlining the elements of effective damage prevention programs. These processes are meant to prevent erosion, excavation damage, equipment failure and other problems.
Recent discoveries of oil and natural gas in North America have resulted in a rapidly expanding pipeline infrastructure in the United States, Weimer said.
Locally, the Trans Mountain Pipeline system, owned by Kinder Morgan, the third largest energy company, feeds the two oil refineries in Whatcom County. It is under a proposal to nearly triple in size for the movement of oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries elsewhere, Weimer said.
That oil will go to a terminal in Vancouver, B.C. for shipping, not coming into the United States. This proximity will have significant impacts on the amount of tanker traffic in the waters of the Puget Sound, Weimer said.
“From Kinder Morgan’s standpoint, there is all this oil in Canada that is looking for a way out, so it will be creating jobs in Canada and economic development in Canada from moving that oil through Vancouver and mainly shipping it to Asian countries,” Weimer said in a speech.
Kinder Morgan currently has no plans to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Washington and the current pipeline in the state would not be affected, according to their website.
Anytime pipelines are added onto by a significant amount, it increased the risks of oils spills, Weimer said.
“Our company has an extensive integrity and maintenance program in place to ensure that the pipe and associated equipment are well operated and maintained,” a Kinder Morgan rep said in an email.
That maintenance program covers prioritizing pipeline inspections, anomaly investigation and repair, aerial patrols and a yearly detailed analysis of their entire system, according to representative.
“Kinder Morgan has dedicated staff called ‘Pipeline Protection’ whose sole responsibility is to ensure that the public is made aware of where our pipe line is in their communities,” said the representative. “Our focus on pipeline integrity and protection show up in Kinder Morgan’s better than industry average incident rates.”
Whatcom County has a history of pipeline disasters, in addition to the 1999 explosion. In 1997 a Northwest/Williams natural gas pipeline ruptured near Sumas Mountain, causing extensive harm to the environment and personal property, according to a Whatcom pipeline background report.
“We have had our share of incidents here locally,” Weimer said. “We are a hub of pipelines in a variety of ways. Oil pipelines, product pipelines and natural gas pipelines come from different directions and pass through us.”
A strong push in the direction of alternate energy sources would lessen the need of pipelines for oil and gas. However, the industry is expanding at a fast rate because of all the newly tapped resources, mainly a result of fracking, Weimer said.
Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is when tons of water mixed with chemicals are used at high pressures to mine natural gases from the shale rock deep in the earth.
The Pipeline Safety Trust does not take a stand for or against particular pipelines, Weimer said. Its efforts are directed at making sure that if pipelines are going to exist, they are used properly and operate as safely as possible.
Weimer hopes to be able to someday expand inspections and work toward better leak detection systems for the sake of communities like Bellingham.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline originates in Canada and therefore is regulated under The National Energy Board standards, according to their website transmountain.org.
Trans Mountain often exceeds their safety regulations and responds to local conditions which may require higher standards, their website said.
Trans Mountain supplies the National Energy Board (NEB) with an annual list of spills and leaks which then is compiled into a performance report. The 10-year average for pipeline liquid spills is 11,042 gallons per 1,000 kilometers (approximately 621 miles), according to the 2011 report from the NEB.
In the United States, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration registers all incidents where a spill of five gallons or more is reported and the latest 10-year average in the U.S. was approximately 1,016 gallons per 1,000 kilometers.
The data collected for those measurements differed from year-to-year and differed from the Canadian requirements for spill reports, according to the PHMSA website.
Next Thursday, May 15, the Huxley guest in the Speaker Series will be Gregory Fiske, in Environmental Studies room 100 at 4 p.m. He will be addressing “Extreme Home Efficiency and the Economized Ranch House.” The discussion is free and open to the public.
Where are pipelines?
- All 50 states
- Mostly underground
Why do we use pipelines?
- Movement of fuel, gasses, fertilizer
- There is enough pipeline in the U.S. to circle the earth about 100 times.
- Those pipelines are operated by approx. 3,000 companies.
- The size of the pipes ranges from larger community lines to smaller individual routes.
*Source: PHMSA Annual Report of Milage Summary Statistics