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Lessons from Gas Pipeline Explosions in Texas

Late last year a pipeline explosion occurred in a west Texas liquified petroleum pipeline, near the small town of Milford in Ellis County, about 50 miles south of Dallas. Emergency officials had to evacuate some residents and students at a nearby school. The Texas Department of Transportation had to close U.S. Highway 77 and FM 308 near the fire site. The Environmental Protection Agency also sent a crew from their Dallas office.

The accident happened when a rig drilling crew accidentally punctured a 10 inch liquefied petroleum pipeline owned by Chevron in partnership with Atlas Pipeline Partners LP. The rupture created a large fire, which was allowed to burn out after about 24 hours. Employees on the rig were able to escape to safety.

The explosion occurred in part of a 2,700 mile West Texas LPG Pipeline, which extends from natural gas processing plants in west Texas and New Mexico to storage facilities in Mont Belvieu, Texas. There was a prior incident in September 2011, when a fire was ignited by a production pump, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. That incident caused more than $1.5 million in property damage and released more than 13,000 bbl in liquified petroleum. Readers may also recall the recent pipeline accident in Mayflower, Arkansas, when an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured. PHMSA recently found that Exxon had violated nine pipeline safety regulations and was fined $2.6 million in civil penalties. The largest portion of the fine was due to ExxonMobil not following its own operations and maintenance procedures! ExxonMobil issued a statement saying it was disappointed a Notice of Probable Violations was issued but that it was working with PHMSA on investigating the rupture. My guess is that “disappointment” doesn’t begin to cover the feelings of the nearby residents whose homes and businesses were impacted by this rupture.

The pipeline near Milford is an intrastate pipeline, and so is regulated by the Railroad Commission of Texas. Waco Fire Chief John Johnson noted that the pipeline industry provides maps of all pipeline locations to local fire departments and also donates money to train first responders to deal with disasters. He said residents should call 811 before beginning any project involving digging or drilling at least two days ahead of time.

While pipeline incidents like these are not common, they illustrate how important it is to have strict regulation of pipeline construction and operation. Even though these incidents are rare, they invariably cause huge amounts of damage. At the same time, it is important to remember that it is actually still safer to live near an oil or gas pipeline pipeline than it is to drive to the grocery store or travel by airplane. No mode of transport is without risk. The fact is that pipelines have far fewer accidents, are less dangerous to the environment and to the safety of people nearby than any other means of transporting oil and gas. Thus, while pipeline companies should be held fully liable for the damages these Incidents cause, we also need to keep the use of pipelines in perspective.

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