Beneath our streets and roads, 2.5 million miles of pipelines quietly carry the fuel and hazardous materials that our economy and daily lives depend on. While our energy supply needs these pipelines, some are asking whether aging pipelines are putting our safety in jeopardy. The question has significant implications for Texas, which the state Railroad Commission estimates has 366,274 miles of pipeline.

As a new ProPublica report shows, the risk of catastrophic spills and explosions from pipelines is real. Pipeline accidents across the United States have killed more than 500 people since 1986. More than 4,000 people have been injured and nearly $7 billion in property damage has occurred.

Fewer, But More Severe, Accidents

Even with injury and death statistics like these, pipelines are generally regarded as a safer alternative than tanker trucks or trains as a means to transport fuel. ProPublica’s fatality statistics show that trucks killed four times as many people as oil pipelines from 2005 through 2009. The problem, however, is that a single pipeline spill or explosion has the potential to be many times more devastating than a single truck crash. Consider these recent accidents:

  • In 2010, a ruptured pipeline spewed natural gas in San Bruno, California, causing an explosion that killed eight people, injured more than 50, and left a 72-foot crater behind.
  • A 2010 pipeline accident in Michigan spilled 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. The spill cost an estimated $800 million.
  • In 2011, a natural gas pipeline exploded beneath a Pennsylvania street. Five people who lived in nearby houses were killed. A fire from the explosion damaged 50 buildings.

Aging Pipelines Are a Worry

Pipeline accidents happen for many reasons. Welds fail. Natural disasters hit. During excavation, construction workers hit pipes with their excavation equipment. One of the largest factors in pipeline accidents is age. The explosion in Pennsylvania involved a cast iron pipeline installed in 1928.

Age is particularly worrisome because more than half of pipelines in the U.S. are at least 50 years old. Pipelines are more likely to have problems as they get older. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), corrosion causes up to 20 percent of all pipeline incidents that resulted in extensive property damage, injury or death.

Different Inspection Schedules

PHMSA, an agency housed within the Department of Transportation, is responsible for much of the monitoring and enforcement of pipeline safety in the U.S. Inspection criteria can be irregular, depending on the type of pipeline and other factors. ProPublica reports that just 7 percent of natural gas lines and 44 percent of lines containing hazardous liquid are required to have PHMSA’s most rigorous and regular inspections. Other pipelines are inspected less often.

Even if PMHSA had stricter inspection requirements, it’s possible the agency would not have the ability to monitor the pipelines more closely. The New York Times has reported that PHMSA is chronically short of inspectors and does not have the funds to hire more.

The idea that pipelines are effectively regulated, monitored and replaced is a myth. Pipelines in Texas and other states are at risk, and as the pipes grow older, the risk may grow. If you or a loved one or your property has been harmed by a pipeline accident, contact an attorney experienced in oil and gas accidents.