Could your neighborhood be next?

Neighborhoods can be turned upside down by shale oil and shale gas drilling (see here and here), by pipelines dug through backyards, and by pipeline spills that send crude oil across entire neighborhoods. All of it gives me the willies, but it’s always been theoretical willies as the prospects of something like these happening in my neighborhood have seemed remote.

That changed a bit a few weeks ago when I got a call from someone doing a survey for an “oil and gas firm.” The first question: “How would you feel about having a drilling rig set up in your backyard?” It was far from a theoretical question. There’s shale gas in North Carolina and those deposits run right through Durham, my hometown. Moreover, the state legislature has, at least in principle, given the go-ahead to companies wanting to frack for the gas (with a moratorium “delaying permitting until the General Assembly takes additional legislative action to allow it”) and the American Petroleum Institute has begun a campaign “urging North Carolina landowners to sign drilling leases.” 

I have to tell you that I was a bit shaken by the question. I have seen fracking rigs in Pennsylvania and breathed the air around them. I have spoken to folks who had to put up with the noise and nuisance of compressors that move the gas down the pipeline. And so I told the caller, “No,” and hung up before hearing any other questions.

Then There’s Oil Spills

A bit later I came across an article in the New York Times about a different but related neighborhood catastrophe  oil spills from burst pipelines  and it reminded me that other neighborhoods have a different but very real threat related to fossil fuels.

In his article “Amid Pipeline Debate, Two Costly Cleanups Forever Change Towns” reporter Dan Frosch details the ongoing crisis caused by two pipeline oil spills, one in Marshall, Michigan, in 2010 and the other in Mayflower, Arkansas, last March. Combined, the incidents have displaced more than 200 residents, forced out of their homes because of air and/or water quality issues or because of “diminished property value.” And of course it’s not just homes and homeowners. The spill has caused some businesses to shutter, while some businesspeople still working, like a local microbrewer, worry about how the damage may impact their operations  and ingestible products.

And keeping water supplies, farmlands, rivers, homes and businesses safe from the pipeline spills is no easy task. Just ask the people of Mayflower, Arkansas, who (along with the federal government) have sued ExxonMobil after one of the company’s pipelines carrying heavy crude ruptured on March 29, 2013, sending 3,500-19,000 barrels of crude into the small town. Oil, some may argue, keeps our energy-intensive society going, but when the toxic stuff gets where it shouldn’t, it’s not good for our health or well-being.

Acknowledging the devastation caused, the pipeline companies, such as Enbridge (which has quite a record of spills [pdf[) and ExxonMobil, have issued apologies to the communities that have been upended by the spills along with financial support for residents impacted by the spills.

Sadly these two spills are by no means isolated incidents. The list of communities dealing with and reeling from pipeline spills appears to be growing. Among the more notable in recent years: Salt Lake City, UtahMarshall, Michigan (see also here); Mayflower, Arkansas; Laurel, Montana (see also here); Chicago. In Alberta, Canada, there’s Elk Point, Mountain View and Red Deer River.

Between 1993 and 2012, there hasn’t been a single year without a “significant incident” or property damage, and there have been only a handful of years without fatalities. As for injuries during the same time frame, only 2002 went injury-free from the transport of liquid fuels. (See also here.)

The Safest Ain’t So Safe

So what’s to be done? Proponents of the oil and gas industry seem to be telling us: not much. Their refrain after every spill seems to be: “We’re sorry,” followed by something along the lines of “pipelines are the safest way to transport liquid fuels.”

A hearing [pdf] in the House in 2010 following the pipeline spills in Michigan, Salt Lake City and Chicago underscores this.

“Pipelines are the safest way to transport liquid fuels.” —Andy Black, President and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines

“[T]ransport by pipe is still the safest way to get our energy supplies from one place to another.” —Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA)

“[T]ransporting … fuels through pipelines remains the safest means of distribution to families and businesses throughout this country.” —Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL)

“[T]ransporting our fuels through pipelines is the safest, most reliable, economically and environmentally friendly way to transport fuels.” —Rep. Gene Green (D-TX)

In other words, if you want oil you’d better be prepared to live with the spills, if you are unlucky enough to live near a pipeline. Which begs the question: how likely are you to be unlucky?

Is There a Pipeline Near You

With the United States projected to become the biggest oil producer by around 2020 [pdf], it would seem the potential hazards posed by transporting oil via pipelines is not going away any time soon. Daily, 35 million barrels of oil travel through our country’s vast network of gathering lines, transmission and trunklines, distribution systems and delivery lines. Crude flows from “producing or importing centers to inland refining centers” [pdf] through a network of trunklines, which “account for the vast majority of U.S. crude oil movements.” [pdf]

pipeline map

With so many miles of pipelines crisscrossing the United States, mostly below ground, pipeline spills are unlikely to go away any time soon.

What About Government Regulation?

So far, it would appear that government regulation and oversight have fallen short of the mark. Part of the reason no doubt is the vastness of the pipeline network and the paucity of regulatory personnel who can oversee the integrity of the pipelines. Last year, President Obama signed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 [pdf], which aims to address the number of regulators problem and “increases the daily per-violation cap from $100,000 to $200,000, with a maximum of $2 million for any related series of violations, up from $1 million.”

I am not terribly sanguine about this new bill. With the government cutting back because of the sequester, it seems unlikely that we will see a significant increase in oversight, and a fine of $2 million for companies that gross billions has got to be a drop in the bucket.

A Solution?

It seems fairly certain that as long as we gulp down barrels and barrels of oil each day, we are going to have pipelines and pipeline spills. There is a solution, admittedly not an easy one: get off the gasoline kick.

Which brings me back to that phone call. After the call I was pretty upset, needed to let off some steam. So I got on my bike and toured the, at least for now, frack-free neighborhood. So there, I said to no one in particular as I pedaled along, I don’t need no stinking oil or gas. Of course the very next day I got into my car and drove to work  hey, at least it’s a hybrid.


  1. Bill Chameides
    November 1, 2013, 4:34 pm

    Jj: As a general rule, you may want to avoid using words like “always” especially in the area of energy. And I would also be careful about generalizing about folks including “greens.” Jim Hansen, arguably one of the most outspoken of the “greens” when it comes to climate, is certainly anti-fossil fuels (see for example); he is also a strong advocate for nuclear (e.g., ).

    Oh, and by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, we’ve made great progress in preventing as well as curing cancer.

  2. Bill S.
    September 6, 2013, 11:45 pm

    To “Freund Hein”, who writes that “[r]epeating stupid propaganda is cheap but does not increase its trustworthiness”, perhaps you might want to apply the statement to your assertion that “electricity got cheaper for industrial customers”.

    Where so-called renewables (wind & solar) have become “cheaper” for anyone is where you’ll find massive taxpayer subsidies propping up those generation schemes.

    Meanwhile, in your renewable energy nirvana, EU countries across the board, including your beloved Germany, are quietly abandoning subsidies as their grids become more and more unstable due to massive load fluctuations brought on by wind and solar generation. UK alone plans to install up to 8,000 megawatts of diesel power generation to support their grid where wind turbines produce less than one half of one percent of their nameplate capacity on cold, windless nights. And energy storage from wind or solar generation is always “just around the corner”, but oddly enough, the sun still does not shine at night. Hmmm.

    Meanwhile your political rant is amusing, but has nothing to do with the point of the article.

  3. Freund Hein
    September 5, 2013, 3:03 pm

    U R a freak, a lier or both. Renewables in Europe are on the verge, reliable and cheap. If U apply them the right way.
    Result: electricity got cheaper for industrial customers. The other thing is politics. It seem so, that Germans have a tendency to reelect a government, which had betrayed and robbed the major portion of the population for the benefit of the rich 0,1% and international (mostly American) banking corps.
    (Why does it sound like corpse?)

    Repeating stupid propaganda is cheap but does not increase its trustworthiness.

  4. Donna ( Karback ) Grote
    Hinsdale-Clarendon, IL
    August 27, 2013, 8:00 am

    Heh! august 21 is my birthday. Same here. I follow legislation and go to Springfield, IL -Headquarters for many reasons.

    Thank you for freedom of….thought, speech, feel etc.

    The bills that pass mostly are voted yeh for all on or to token Na (horse )

  5. Kenneth Bulls
    Franklin,VA USA
    August 25, 2013, 9:09 am

    I bet the same people who hate oil companies love the life they live on the benefits of electric power,not the cars,what a joke,the socialists running the country can not subsidize them enough,the lights,cellphones,laptops,etc.They cry foul when a bird dies in a oilfield and turn their head in hypocrisy when they are slaughtered bye windmills.Windmills in my opinion are a gigantic step backwards.Drill for oil in the most logical places that Obozo has placed off limits and get on with it

  6. jj
    August 23, 2013, 8:37 am

    “There is a solution, admittedly not an easy one: get off the gasoline kick.”

    Well…sure. And the solution to people dying of cancer…is to just cure cancer.

    Windmills and solar cells won’t power an industrial economy. Even with some miraculous tech breakthrough doubling their efficiency and power output they would account for 15% of U.S. electricity production rather than the current 7.5%. And as Germany and Spain discovered, these technologies are notoriously expensive and unreliable, which is why Germany is now going through a dirty coal strip mining binge to fuel new coal plants to replace the nuclear plants they took off line.

    It isn’t a choice between “dirty” evil hydrocarbons and “clean” smiley solar and wind power. It’s a choice between dirty carbon and somewhat cleaner carbon fuels. Solar and wind will always be marginal and will never supply the energy needed for a modern society.

    Some day there will be a non-carbon energy economy running on a power source yet to be invented, perhaps fusion, perhaps something else entirely. The only viable bridge to that point is nuclear fission. However, Greens are doing everything they can to kill nuclear, nat gas or any other viable alternative to solar and wind, the two least productive solutions we have.