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.
In March, an interstate oil pipeline burst near Mayflower, Ark., spilling about 5,000 barrels of oil. Last month, a train carrying oil derailed and exploded in North Dakota. Another oil train explosion in July killed 47 people in Lac-Magantic, Quebec.
“The danger of oil by rail is that it passes through communities and is closer to a lot of urban centers,” said Michael Marx, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign. “The danger with pipelines is that when they break, oftentimes by the time we stop it, we've had a much bigger spill. Those tend to be big spills, and they're building bigger pipelines to transport more oil and transport it under pressure.”
The Sierra Club is working to move the country away from oil and other fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, Marx said.
“Our conclusion is that this should not be a question of more pipelines or more rail. It should be a question of clean energy and fuel efficiency verses extreme oil, which is our source of the future,” he said. “That's the crossroads. Do you go down the road of mass transit electric vehicles, people on bicycles and fuel efficiency or do you go down the road of high-risk, extreme fuels?”
The pipeline companies, however, say they are continuing to improve their maintenance programs.
“We have 24-hour-a-day monitoring out of a control center in Canada. The lines are monitored from the control center on a 24-hour basis,” Enbridge Inc. spokeswoman Lara Burhenn said. “Those operators can monitor lines and look for any kind of anomaly in pressure. The instant they see anything out of order, they can shut down the line and dispatch a local worker to look at the ground to see if there is anything that is discoverable. It may then warrant an excavation.”
Burhenn said the company plans to spend about $4 billion over the next four years on pipeline maintenance.
“A properly maintained pipeline can last indefinitely,” she said. “We have lines in the northern part of our system that were built in 1949 that our operational people say looks brand new.”