The boom in oil and natural gas in recent years has led to rapid development of pipelines, rail, trucks and barges as companies have worked to move production throughout the country.
A series of accidents has focused scrutiny on each system as regulators and operators seek out the best way to transport oil and natural gas from wells to the customer.
Proper maintenance and regulation is the key to ensuring energy transportation safety, Oklahoma Energy and Environment Secretary Michael Teague said.
“Pipelines give you the safest system in terms of health, safety and the environment. I know there are concerns with environmental impacts of pipelines, but if done correctly and regulated correctly, pipelines are going to give you the best long-term solution,” he said.
“But there are areas where we don't have the infrastructure built yet. The Bakken (in North Dakota) is a good example of that. If you don't have pipelines, you rely on rail and trucks over the road. You have to have all three of those systems.”
Interstate pipelines are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission enforces federal regulations on intrastate pipelines.
Operators are required to conduct regular inspections of their pipelines as they look for corrosion, leaks or other weaknesses in the lines.
“By meeting those requirements, they minimize the likelihood of an event that might be catastrophic,” said Dennis Fothergill, pipeline safety manager at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
The commission oversees more than 280 operators and more than 40,000 miles of pipeline throughout the state.
In addition to the regular inspections, operators of pipelines that run through sensitive areas — such as population centers and waterways — must every five years inspect their lines with equipment known as a “smart tool” or a “smart pig.”
The tool runs through the pipeline, scanning the walls for corrosion, leaks or other problems.
Despite the regular inspections, leaks, spills and bigger problems occasionally occur.