America's Woefully Inadequate Oversight of Pipeline Safety: A New York Times Stunner

Last week, the New York Times published a bombshell of an expose about the government's woefully inadequate program to monitor and ensure the security and safety of American energy pipelines. I’ve spent a lot of time lately investigating the state of North American energy pipelines, and this is by far the best overview I’ve seen of the government’s feckless attempt to oversee the sprawling system and protect the public from spills, leaks, and explosions.

Reporters Dan Frosch and Janet Roberts dig into federal government records and safety documents and surface some truly startling findings. Like the fact that there are “still more than 100 significant spills each year.” (“Significant” spills being those that cause a fire, serious injury or death, or release over 2,100 gallons.)

Or that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration only requires companies to focus their inspections on “the 44 percent of the nation’s land-based liquid pipelines that could affect high consequence areas — those near population centers or considered environmentally delicate — which leaves thousands of miles of lines loosely regulated and operating essentially on the honor system.” Or the fact that the agency doesn’t even employ as many inspectors as federal law demands.

It’s well worth reading the whole expose, but here’s the crucial takeaway:

The little-known federal agency charged with monitoring the system and enforcing safety measures — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves, according to federal reports, an examination of agency data and interviews with safety experts… They portray an agency that rarely levies fines and is not active enough in policing the aging labyrinth of pipelines, which has suffered thousands of significant hazardous liquid spills over the past two decades.

The article is accompanied by a jaw dropping map of all the toxic spills from pipelines since 1990. Here’s a little taste of the heart of our nation’s energy pipeline system – around extraction hubs in Oklahoma and Texas and the refineries along the Gulf of Mexico – but you really must click through and take in the whole nation.

pipeline spills energy pipeline spills since 1990 new york times

The writers also make the link to the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would funnel volatile DilBit crude 1,700 miles across six Great Plains states, 1,904 waterways, and the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer (Ogallala).

Keystone XL, like the rest of the tar sands lines in the Keystone system and the tens of thousands of miles of crude pipelines that came before it, would rely largely on the self-policing that Frosch and Roberts prove has been terribly ineffective.

For all the discussion of “energy security,” there's remarkably little talk of how much more “secure” our energy system would be if it had appropriate oversight and monitoring in line with the vast scale of the pipeline system. And for all the hollow talk of “job creation,” nobody mentions the number of safety workers that should be hired to keep this system running safely to protect the public.


Shortage of inspectors is all to common. You might think that in the jobs stimulus money era there would be money for things like this. Guess not.

My building had only one “annual” fire department inspection in the past decade.

Mr Jervey

       Are you completely off the grid? And do you not own a car? If you are not then you are cussing the farmer with your mouth full. I think you need to look at who butters your bread because I really thing this whole blog is using power from the grid and then writing articles like this. If I am wrong please let us know how.

“  Are you completely off the grid? And do you not own a car? If you are not then you are cussing the farmer with your mouth full. I think you need to look at who butters your bread because I really thing this whole blog is using power from the grid and then writing articles like this. If I am wrong please let us know how.”

Oh yes, we must be in thrall to them forever for this honour & promise never to transition to another fuel source ever until they have made their last dollar out of it………then we are allowed to look for alternatives eh?


Nope. Not against alternative fuels. Just that there are not any that can possibly meet our demands at this time. Rentech is working on one. But even when their product takes over the market it will still run through pipes. Bloom energy seams to be a winner but still requires PIPES. Lets say that we outlaw pipelines altogether then at current consumption it would require 2500 truckloads per day to deliver it. I rather like the idea of piping this stuff. Of course the American Trucking Association would like that idea.  

Actually sounds like extremely high numbers but how many of these are still not mitigated? I’m talking about cleaned up and the area returned to normal. Any spill that is less than 5 gallons and can be completely cleaned up does not have to be reported to the EPA. All spills over 5 gallons must be reported to the EPA even if they are completely and immediately cleaned up. So numbers can swell. Some people may be lead to think that these numbers are all from failures in the pipeline. However many of them are spills inflicted during maintenance and repairs. They must be reported because of the rules. But they are contained and cleaned up at the time they happened. As for safety they actually have an extraordinary safety record. I say a good safety record because if we look at the alternative our spills would be much higher. Just imagine shutting down all the pipelines and moving it with trucks, trains, and ships. Myself being a firefighter would much rather respond to a pipeline leak that to 100 LNG train cars derailed. Yea we don’t see 100 LNG train cars because we have pipelines. I vote we keep the pipelines.   

There are 11.5 million miles of highway in the US. There are 2.3 million miles of gas and oil pipeline in the US. All inclusive in 2008 from drilling rig, through the refineries, to the end user there were 120 industry related deaths in the oil and gas industry. In 2008 there were 39,800 highway deaths. Or 1 death per 1967 miles of pipeline and 1 death per 289 miles of highway. If you are truly concerned with public safety then get all rallied up and ban highways.

Thanks for the perspective. I read somewhere that world wide highway deaths are about 3000 per day.
It’s generally viewed as an acceptable price for what highways do for us - unless you’re one of the 3000 I suppose.

Spills and pollution are generally viewed as an acceptable price for what energy does for us.