Fatal Gas Blast Prompts Scrutiny of Aging U.S. Fuel Pipelines

The San Francisco gas pipe explosion last week along with an oil pipeline leak near Chicago is likely to draw regulators’ attention to fuel transportation networks, some of which have been in service more than four decades.

Four people are confirmed dead and four are missing after the Sept. 9 explosion of a 54-year-old PG&E Corp. natural-gas pipeline in the San Bruno suburb. The blast happened one day after an Enbridge Inc. crude-oil line leaked near Chicago, forcing a shutdown threatening fuel supplies in the U.S. Midwest. The Enbridge pipe, which can handle 670,000 barrels a day, started service in 1968.

The U.S. is crisscrossed with more than 2.5 million miles of fuel pipelines, or enough to circle the earth about 100 times. U.S. regulators may now step up inspections and increase the industry’s maintenance costs, said Mark Easterbrook, a pipelines analyst with RBC Capital Markets in Dallas.

“Regulators will probably look for more integrity spending on pipelines,” Easterbrook said. “We’re probably going to see incremental increases in the future, with more attention on older pipelines.”

Much of the underground infrastructure in the U.S., which also includes water and sewer pipes, has been in use for more than 50 years and needs to be evaluated and, where needed, replaced, said Blaine Leonard, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s in bad shape, but the risk is certainly increased,” Leonard, a civil engineer in Utah, said. “There’s a lot of hidden infrastructure and we can’t be complacent about it. So much of our economy and quality of life depends on it.”

Campers Killed

In 2000, a gas pipeline owned by El Paso Corp. ruptured near Carlsbad, New Mexico, killing 12 campers in one of the deadliest pipeline explosions in the last 15 years. Corrosion was found to be the cause of the blast, El Paso said in a statement at the time.

The company, owner of the longest U.S. natural-gas pipeline system, agreed to spend $86 million on improvements and pay a $15.5 million civil fine in July, 2007, to settle government claims.

The PG&E pipeline that exploded last week in San Francisco was built in 1956, according to Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing all probes into the incident. Investigators haven’t yet pinpointed the cause of the San Bruno blast.

Oil Spill

Enbridge’s closed pipe is part of the Lakehead System that started service in the 1950s to carry crude oil to refineries in the Midwest from Canada and also transports products like gasoline and jet fuel.

“Older pipelines are much more at risk because we didn’t have the protective technology that we do now,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said. “Old pipes had either no corrosion protection or were wrapped with material that looked like tar paper.”

Pipelines can be inspected using devices called pigs that run through sections of pipe, deploying sensors and cameras to detect cracks, corrosion and other defects from the interior. Companies can also pump fluids through the pipe at high pressure to test integrity, or dig up sections for visual inspections.

Energy pipelines in the U.S. are tracked by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Bellingham Blast

The lack of computerized records for much of the U.S. pipeline network complicates efforts, said Weimer, whose Bellingham, Washington-based organization monitors and advocates for pipeline safety. “There is a lot of historical data that has been lost,” he said.

Bellingham was the site of a 1999 explosion of a gasoline pipeline that burned two 10-year-old boys to death and killed a fisherman who was overcome by fumes. The pipeline, owned by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Texaco Inc. and BP Plc, spilled 236,000 gallons of fuel into a creek, which then ignited. Shell and BP later paid $75 million to the families of the two boys in a settlement.

Sixteen people died in gas pipeline explosions in 2008 and 2009, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In June, three workers died in Texas in two separate gas pipeline explosions, triggered by construction crews striking the pipes.

Ruptures Rare

Ruptures of natural gas lines are rare, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., a pipeline-safety consulting company in Redmond, Washington.

Causes of ruptures can include manufacturing defects that worsen over time, work crews that hit the pipes while digging, or corrosion.

Investment is needed in aging infrastructure of all types, including natural gas, water and the U.S. electricity grid, which can create jobs, and protect public health and safety, Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and energy team, said in e-mailed comments.

“Infrastructure wears out and this is especially true for local distribution systems,” Anderson said.