Alabama Has Thousands of Miles of Gas and Oil Pipelines, Mostly Out of Sight and Mind

The Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill in Shelby County was a wake-up call for the public and the government about just how critical oil and gas pipelines are to America’s energy supply needs, and how such an incident could impact the environment.

The Cahaba River Society (CRS), an advocacy and education group for the waterway most threatened by the gasoline spill, said in a statement this week that the spill “very narrowly missed” entering the river, less than a mile away.

Southeast Detail: Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines
Southeast Detail: Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines

CRS field director Randy Haddock, PhD, said pipeline safety isn’t top-of-mind until a significant incident occurs. “As the acute phase of this event ends, we expect to start having conversations” among advocacy groups, industry, government, and others about how to prevent or limit damage when another incident occurs, Haddock said.

Populations have grown and shifted since the Colonial Pipeline was put into the ground more than 50 years ago in 1963, so the lines now potentially affect many more people. Under federal rules, pipeline operators are required to designate some sections of pipeline as a “high consequence area” that has more stringent standards, such as stronger, thicker, or more advanced material. High priority areas receive greater inspection scrutiny and priority for repair because they are near population centers or sensitive environment.

The CRS said in a statement Sept. 20 that it would work with Colonial “to ensure that the Cahaba watershed crossing is designated for added attention and protection.”

Although the specific cause of the Colonial Pipeline failure is not yet known, some experts say the 50-year average age of the nation’s pipelines is cause for concern.

“Oil and gas will be necessary to meet America’s energy needs until at least 2050, but the ability to reliably deliver sufficient oil and gas supplies is hampered with existing infrastructure,” said PipelineLaw.com in a blog today.

“Technology for steel pipe and for epoxy and other coatings has advanced since the early 1960s when the Colonial Pipeline was put in. Now there seems to be a rash of pipelines that have had failures for a variety of reasons related to age,” according to Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, in Bellingham, WA.

Alabama has 6,748 miles of interstate pipeline, plus more than 57,000 miles of smaller main and service lines that distribute product from a transmission pipeline. By comparison, Mississippi has 10,450 miles of interstate pipe, and Arkansas has 7,212 miles. The data come from the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is housed in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How safe are Alabama’s interstate pipelines? PHMSA calls a “significant incident” when a pipeline failure results in a fire or explosion, causes human death or hospitalization, or a cost of $50,000 or more in total costs, or involves a large release of highly volatile liquids or a release that results in unintentional fire or explosion.

Jefferson County Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines. NPMS data consists of gas transmission pipelines and hazardous liquid trunk lines.   It does not contain gathering or distribution pipelines, such as lines that deliver gas to a customer's house.  Blue:  Gas Transmission Pipelines Orange:  Hazardous Liquid Pipelines
Jefferson County Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Trunk Pipeline. Blue:  Gas Transmission Pipelines Orange:  Hazardous Liquid Pipelines

Alabama has had 68 such incidents over the past 20 years, through 2015. By comparison, Mississippi reported 92 and Arkansas reported 66. Alabama reported 14 fatalities over that period, Mississippi had 7, and Arkansas, 6.

Alabama’s total costs over 20 years were $24,680,017. Totals for Mississippi were $36,457,514, and Arkansas incidents cost $113,704,944.

Although PHMSA has some 150 inspectors in its five regional offices to oversee and analyze reports from operators of the nation’s 2,500,000 miles of interstate pipeline, most on-site, physical inspection is performed by the pipeline owners and operators themselves, according to Pipeline Safety Trust. The inspections can be accomplished by pressurizing a targeted segment for a short period to see if a problem occurs, by the use of cameras and other technology to examine the inside of pipe, and other means.

Inspecting the inside of a pipe can uncover potential problems, but pipelines fail even after such inspections, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Colonial Pipeline said it has 5,500 miles of gasoline pipeline in service, of which 2,000 miles are internally monitored every year looking for flaws in pipeline integrity.

Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines

Pipeline products reach their destination safely more than 99.9% of the time, PipelineLaw.com said. “Despite this excellent safety record, existing oil and gas pipeline infrastructure is aging… Maintenance and repair of existing pipeline infrastructure, and construction of new pipelines, should be a priority for Americans, in order to meet national energy demands and maintain public safety and infrastructure security.”

(The second paragraph of this story has been corrected to reflect that the Cahaba River Society statement referred to the spill entering the river.)