Quantcast

«

»

Jan 31 2014

Add “flaming death” to “environmental degradation”

I’m just curious — did anyone else hear about the big pipeline explosion near Winnipeg? I’m sure that if you lived in southern Manitoba, where thousands were without heat for their homes in January, knew all about it. But I didn’t see much in the news about this terrifying event.

gaslineexplosion

There may be a reason for that. Pipeline explosions aren’t that unusual or newsworthy, I guess.

Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit watchdog organization, says that, on average, there is “a significant incident — somewhere — about every other day. And someone ends up in the hospital or dead about every nine or ten days.” This begs the question: are pipelines carrying shale gas different in their explosive potential than other pipelines?

“There isn’t any database that allows you to get at that,” says Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant of 40 years’ experience. “If it’s a steel pipeline and it has enough gas in it under enough pressure, it can leak or rupture.” Many pipelines, says Kuprewicz, aren’t bound by any safety regulations, and even when they are, enforcement can often be lax. Where regulations exist, he continues, corporate compliance is uneven. “Some companies comply with and exceed regulations, others don’t.  If I want to find out about what’s going on, I may [have to] get additional information via subpoena.”

The United States has gone fracking mad — Obama even made a point of mentioning that we’ve become a net oil exporter in his state of the union address, without bothering to say how that happened — but we ought to be concerned. It’s easy to ignore the fact that parts of North Dakota and Canada are being shredded and poisoned and torn apart because nobody lives there (well, nearly: low population density rural areas are fair game for exploitation, because biomes don’t sue), but then they run poorly regulated and maintained pipelines straight to our homes.

Another thing that raises my hackles: they’ve taken to naming these pipelines with words to inspire reverence among the rubes. “Keystone” is sort of neutral, but the article above talks about one called “Constitution”. Are you against the Constitution? What kind of ‘Murican are you? I expect any day now to discover a pipeline proposal called “God & Family” or, let’s go straight to the heart of the matter, the “Jesus Loves America and Hates Terrorists Pipeline”.

46 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    sonofrojblake

    You forgot the “Mom’s Apple Pie-peline”.

  2. 2
    unbound

    Ayn Rand’s dream is coming to fruition. Soon the country will be covered in industry one way or another. Won’t it be grand?

    I wonder how many of those people who refused pipelines are actually Republicans voting for representatives that strongly support all of this. None of this is an issue until it comes through their own backyards…

  3. 3
    hillaryrettig

    Thanks PZ, I wasn’t familiar with the phenomenon of exploding pipelines. I will forward this to antifracking activists.

  4. 4
    ledasmom

    The “Baseball, Mother, God, Family Values and Red Meat” pipeline.
    sonofrojblake, you now have me wishing that there were an actual Pipeline of Pie.

  5. 5
    Gregory in Seattle

    “… but then they run poorly regulated and maintained pipelines straight to our homes.”

    All too often, by way of the water tap.

  6. 6
    leftwingfox

    Explosive gas is explosive. Careless people plus explosive gas means Happy Fun Boom Time. People without economic incentive to be careful means LOTS of Happy Fun Boom Times.

    And when corporations cut corners of safety, and place the blame on the employees when the inevitable happens, it’s a veritable 1812 Overture of “accidents”.

  7. 7
    downpuppy

    Obama didn’t say we were a net oil exporter, because we’re not. He said that domestic production was higher than imports, i.e. that we’re producing more than half the oil we use. The US is now a net exporter of refined oil products, because overall use has gone down a bit & we have excess refining capacity, but we still are a net importer overall by about 6 million barrels a day.

  8. 8
    Chengis Khan, The Cryofly

    I absolutely keep away from all speculative views and conspiracy theories, including the theory of the existence of god. But I think the oils companies play a big role in keeping these news from getting due exposure (if #3 hillaryrettig are the type of people who watch out for these issues and if they are unaware of it…). In fact in Dakotas and elsewhere, they have ads on television raising energy quiz to the levels of Jeopardy. I am just bringing this up as I live in an area where news flashes were issued and Xcel energy called homes to ask the thermostat to be at 60F when the temperature outside was -21F.

  9. 9
    sadunlap

    This is what economists call an “externality” and private industry will not do jack about anything that costs money they can get out of having to deal with.

    Not sure how many business programs cover this in their Econ 101 courses.

    We’re now in the process of testing the libertarian argument that “harm to the reputation” of a company will deter such behavior. Nice of them to ask people in the affected areas if they wanted to be part of a huge and potentially dangerous socio-economic experiment. Oh, wait… they didn’t. So much for the freedom of the people who are not the libertarians doing the talking.

  10. 10
    quatguy

    The explosion was all over the Canadian news. However, the reports seemed to mainly focus on the poor people without heat instead of any environmental damage or the potential underlying cause. Little or nothing I have seen talked about the big picture.

  11. 11
    kevinalexander

    It’s just fluid dynamics. The higher the pressure, the faster the flow and hence the more profit that can be gotten from a given size pipe.
    The only entity with the power to regulate this is the government and that is owned by the same people who own the pipeline.

  12. 12
    kevinalexander

    I forgot to mention that pipelines are tubes that deliver flaming death and so are protected by the second amendment.

  13. 13
    Paul Dechene

    An oil refinery within the city limits of Regina, Saskatchewan, exploded on Christmas Eve. No one was hurt but still… It’s been a bad couple of months for the oil industry in western Canada.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/explosion-and-fire-rock-regina-refinery-1.2475947

  14. 14
    Nick Gotts

    Another thing that raises my hackles: they’ve taken to naming these pipelines with words to inspire reverence among the rubes.

    There was a somewhat similar fashion for propagandistic names in the UK some time ago, but it took a bit of a hit with the “Herald of Free Enterprise” disaster.

  15. 15
    David Marjanović
    Many pipelines, says Kuprewicz, aren’t bound by any safety regulations

    What.

    You forgot the “Mom’s Apple Pie-peline”.

    + 1

    (See also: Constitution-class starships. *Picard & Riker double facepalm*)

    I forgot to mention that pipelines are tubes that deliver flaming death and so are protected by the second amendment.

    Thread won.

    the “Herald of Free Enterprise” disaster

    X-)

  16. 16
    jimbaerg

    There are some things that are hard to do with anything other than fossil fuels. Essentially activities that require substantial power but you can’t plug into the electric grid, eg: run airplanes, cars, farm tractors etc.

    For other things lets go with the energy source with the best safety record.
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

  17. 17
    robro

    I saw stories about the explosion in Winnipeg once on Google News, possibly after it was over…but I was off grid for a few days. We have pipeline incidents fairly frequently around San Francisco, mostly home owners or construction workers cutting lines. Of course, the big one was the 30-inch pipe that blew in San Bruno in 2010, killing 8 and destroying 35 homes. One evening a few months after that we had a strong smell of gas around our neighborhood, but PG&E couldn’t find anything. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but PG&E has been busily replacing gas lines around here the last year or so.

  18. 18
    Pteryxx

    This begs the question: are pipelines carrying shale gas different in their explosive potential than other pipelines?

    The industry isn’t talking, but here’s some telling info from shale *oil* after a train explosion: Salon

    Days after a mile-long train derailed and exploded in a “giant fireball,” and following a similar incident in July that killed 47 people, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced Thursday that oil fracked out of North Dakota’s Bakken Shale — the same oil behind both explosions — was believed to contain more flammable, corrosive and toxic chemicals than ordinary crude oil.

    It was news to most of us, but not, as DeSmogBlog found, to the company receiving the oil shipments. In a permit application submitted to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources dated over a year before the explosion, Marquis Missouri Terminal LLC acknowledged the high volume of explosive chemicals in its cargo.

    Source article

    Rather than a normal permit, Marquis was given a “special conditions” permit because the Bakken oil it receives from BNSF contains high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the same threat PHMSA noted in its recent safety alert.

    Among the most crucial of the special conditions: Marquis must flare off the VOCs before barging the oil down the Mississippi River. (Flaring is already a highly controversial practice in the Bakken Shale region, where gas is flared off at rates comparable to Nigeria.)

    It’s a tacit admission that the Bakken Shale oil aboard the exploded BNSF train in Casselton, ND is prone to such an eruption.

    “Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions are expected from the proposed equipment,” explains the Marquis permit. “There will be evaporative losses of Toluene, Xylene, Hexane, and Benzene from the crude oil handled by the installation.”

    And per the OP linked article, pipelines and their infrastructure such as compressor stations reach all through the US and Canada, even in populated areas not known for fracking.

    Of all these, pipelines are the industry’s most ubiquitous feature. U.S. Energy Information Administration maps show landscapes so densely veined by pipelines that they look like smashed windshields. There are more than 350,000 miles of gas pipelines in the U.S. These are for the transmission of gas from region to region. Not included are more than two million miles of distribution and service pipelines, which run through thousands of cities and towns with new branches under constant construction. All these pipelines mean countless Americans — even those living far from gas fields, compressor stations, and terminals — find themselves on the frontlines of fracking.

    Have a look at those maps: Page of images

    Repeating for emphasis: Many pipelines aren’t bound by any safety regulations. Pipelines and their infrastructure benefit from loopholes in laws that only regulate the drilling itself, not processing, transport, or disposal (i.e. pumping waste materials onto roads, holding ponds, or back into used-up wells that are then more-or-less sealed and abandoned.)

  19. 19
    timgueguen

    Did the Lac Megantic accident get much press in the US? If petroleum products don’t travel by pipeline, they’ll travel by train, which may be less safe. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_derailment

  20. 20
    Bronze Dog

    For other things lets go with the energy source with the best safety record.
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

    I clicked the link, predicting that nuclear would be at or near the safest. It seems I predicted correctly.

    One thing that has long frustrated me in just about any topic is people who seem to determine risk by dramatic imagery or how exotic the dangers are, rather than looking at the math. They prefer enormous but familiar risks over small, “new” ones. It doesn’t help that we’ve had nuclear bombs, atomic movie monsters, and what seems to be the result of ratings-based news ignoring “dog bites man” stories of exploding oil pipes.

    I’ve seen a similar mindset with the anti-GMO crowd, warning about the dangers of unintended results with genetic modifications… which are, as far as I can tell, the same dangers of breeding plants like we’ve been doing since the invention of agriculture. The natural risks of breeding get a free pass because they’re familiar dangers while genetic modification is new, and therefore scary. They also talk about pests evolving resistances to whatever we do, as if they haven’t been doing it for millennia already. I’m confident that we’ve got species of pests that only exist because we gave them a food source to specialize for.

    I can understand some reluctance to deal with “new” stuff, but that’s why we gather and analyze data. These sorts of people seem more interested in familiarity than safety. They only pay lip service to safety so they can spin calculated risks with new technologies into a caricature of recklessness and pretend that society is already maximally safe. Meanwhile, people die unnecessarily as a fatalistic society treats those deaths as an inevitability while the tools we develop to prevent those deaths are abominations that will magically lead to even greater tragedy.

  21. 21
    Nick Gotts

    For other things lets go with the energy source with the best safety record. – jimbaerg@16

    I guessed before following the link that this was a bit of nuclear fanboi silliness, and I was right. Even if the figures given are accurate – and I very much doubt whether it’s possible to say more than that coal and oil are much more dangerous than anything else, given the huge uncertainties and indirect effects*, there are many other considerations than safety record. Do solar roof panels provide juicy terrorist targets and a risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Do they produce waste that needs to be sequestered for thousands of years? Do their manufacturers demand that the state provide accident insurance for their operation?

    *For example, how many people died after the Japanese tsunami because the Japanese government had to divert vast resources to dealing with the Fukushima nuclear plant, and rescue workers could not take the most direct route to the worst affected areas? We’ll never know.

  22. 22
    Nick Gotts

    I’ve seen a similar mindset with the anti-GMO crowd, warning about the dangers of unintended results with genetic modifications… which are, as far as I can tell, the same dangers of breeding plants like we’ve been doing since the invention of agriculture. – Bronze Dog@20

    My concerns about agricultural GMOs are mostly* (not entirely) to do with the additional power they are likely to give to a small number of large corporations, some of them with very bad records in regard to concealing safety concerns they knew about (such as Monsanto – take a look at their involvement with PCBs, DDT, Agent Orange…). Technologies have socio-economic consequences. However, if you want to continue discussion of GMOs, I think we should really move it to Thunderdome.

    *I readily admit there’s a lot of “natural is best” hooey among anti-GMO groups, but I don’t think your blanket statement that GMOs present no novel dangers is justified. The technology allows us to do new things, so an assumption that this raises no new dangers of unintended effects appears unjustifiable – and the people funding most of the research into GMO safety (and advantages) have a pecuniary interest in finding them to be safe.

  23. 23
    busterggi

    Back in the ’80′s when I worked at the Stanley Works chemical spills were routine and the DEP rarely investigated (the EPA – never). In the few instances any were made public, maybe four or five out of the dozens that I knew of, there was almost no criticism and fine were routinely announced publically then reduced or eliminated privately.

    Anyone in the New Britain, CT, area remember when Piper Brook mysteriously lost its entire fish popultion? That was because the budget of one of the plating departments wouldn’t cover disposal of contaminated plating solution so it was dumped into the brook. No investigation, typical.

  24. 24
    Nemo

    When I first heard of the “Keystone” pipeline, I assumed it must have something to do with Pennsylvania. But perhaps I should’ve been thinking of the Keystone Cops.

  25. 25
    sobrickette

    I got to the end and saw ‘Murica being used, which has come into my use much lately, and I felt a kinship of statements. Everything was in order, apart from the ruptured pipelines which were definitely out of order. As far as this raging inferno being reported, there was a recent study about how much information North American news media networks does or does not cover and of no surprise to anyone, those asked about current topics and used the more prevalent news outlets were low in their knowledge of events.“We expect that watching the news should help people learn, but the most popular of the national media sources–Fox, CNN, MSNBC–seem to be the least informative.” From a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

  26. 26
    erichoug

    @Nick Gotts

    I suppose it really comes down to what you want to do. If you are opposed to Nuclear, Oil and Coal but you want to continue to live and work they way the modern world has generally come to expect then you are pretty much stuck.

    Wind and solar are great in certain instances but almost useless in others and the sad fact of the matter is that they wind and solar have been promoted for years and years and years and they still haven’t gotten that much of the market. Even with the big push in recent years, they are still less than 5% of the total grid power. Every Solar application I have seen in the last 10 years is either trivial or ridiculous. Like a solar panel the size of a football field to run 1 x 460V, 100HP motor. Not to mention that the panels, batteries and inverters needed to power the motor cost more than it would just to buy a generator and enough diesel to run the same motor for the next 100 years.

    So, unless we want to drastically reduce consumption, we need to work to make our existing power supplies better and safer. Frankly, I can’t see how we can afford to pass up any power source.

  27. 27
    jimbaerg

    Nick Gotts @21

    Do you have a criterion for determining if something is “nuclear fanboi silliness” other than “it conflicts with my preconception that nuclear must be bad”?

    “Do solar roof panels provide juicy terrorist targets and a risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?”

    Terrorist targets: Implying that nuclear plants are ‘juicy terrorist targets’. Those concrete domes are pretty hard to damage, which may be why the 9/11 attackers chose the juicier targets of office buildings.

    Proliferation: Any connection between nuclear power generation & nuclear weapons is greatly exagerated. For more ‘fanboi silliness’ (your phrase, not mine)
    http://depletedcranium.com/why-you-cant-build-a-bomb-from-spent-fuel/

    Re waste: semiconductor production does use some nasty substances which have contaminated groundwater in such places as silicon valley. An automatic ‘solar good nuclear bad’ reaction is unjustified.

    BTW I think that in places where there is a summer peak in power demand, solar & nuclear could complement each other nicely.

  28. 28
    Bronze Dog

    I’ll drop the topic after one observation:

    My concerns about agricultural GMOs are mostly* (not entirely) to do with the additional power they are likely to give to a small number of large corporations, some of them with very bad records in regard to concealing safety concerns they knew about (such as Monsanto – take a look at their involvement with PCBs, DDT, Agent Orange…). Technologies have socio-economic consequences. However, if you want to continue discussion of GMOs, I think we should really move it to Thunderdome.

    I think you might be closer to my stance than you realize: The problem is not the technology itself, but how corporations will abuse it if they’re allowed to. In my experience, the typical anti-GMO troll will scapegoat the technology so that they can have the illusion of an easy, simple answer in the form of a GMO ban or whatever. I focus on arguing against their bogus biology in hopes that some people will wise up to the propaganda. That will hopefully give people like you more opportunity to discuss socioeconomic solutions to prevent such abuses.

  29. 29
    changerofbits

    @2

    I wonder how many of those people who refused pipelines are actually Republicans voting for representatives that strongly support all of this. None of this is an issue until it comes through their own backyards…

    You should see the looks on the faces of the rural folks where I grew up in the midwest when, after they complain about that damn keystone pipeline being railroaded through, I tell them it’s a damn good thing Obama/Democrats/Environmentalists are on their side.

  30. 30
    numerobis

    Every time a train derails and catches on fire in Canada (which lately has been about once a month, though most don’t blow up in the middle of a town), it’s all over the news, and people start saying we should build pipelines FTW.

    Then a pipeline blows up and they’re out saying pay no attention, pipelines are safer, we must build pipelines.

    Somehow, “maybe we shouldn’t use quite so much explosive material in our society” isn’t the go-to explanation.

  31. 31
    carlie

    Another thing that raises my hackles: they’ve taken to naming these pipelines with words to inspire reverence among the rubes. “Keystone” is sort of neutral, but the article above talks about one called “Constitution”. Are you against the Constitution? What kind of ‘Murican are you?

    …And in other news, a planned protest against the Beer’n’Wings Pipeline was canceled when its members were run out of town.

  32. 32
    dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!"

    I tell them it’s a damn good thing Obama/Democrats/Environmentalists are on their side.

    Well, you’re a third right…

  33. 33
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    I’m amazed that nobody has spotted the most heinous crime displayed in the source article: BTQ abuse.

  34. 34
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I’m amazed that nobody has spotted the most heinous crime displayed in the source article: BTQ abuse.

    Not this shit again.

  35. 35
    Rey Fox

    Not this shit again.

    Agreed. Worst expression ever.

  36. 36
    joel

    Prof Myers,

    Shale gas is the same as other natural gas. It’s all methane. The only difference is how they get it out of the ground.

    Gas pipelines have been around for like a century, and they’ve been asplodin’ periodically for the entire time. It’s a hazard of the natural gas business, just like electrocutions are a hazard of power lines. Gas pipelines were exploding before fracking was invented, and they’ll still be exploding long after the fracking craze has passed.

    I’m an electrical engineer, and I manage construction in SoCal. It may interest you to know that I have never encountered government safety regulations regarding power lines. Not federal, not state, not county, and not municipal – with one exception. For power lines built on military bases, the DoD does require bird safety measures on the poles, to prevent large birds from getting electrocuted when they perch on them. With that single exception, all levels of government trust utility companies to design their own power lines. I’m sure it’s the same for natural gas pipelines, and has nothing to do with any nefarious plot by any within or without the government. There are many things about fracking that give me the willies – poisoned groundwater comes to mind – but exploding pipelines is not one of them. It has always been a hazard of the industry.

    So it’s really silly to link this to fracking. I’m just saying.

  37. 37
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Shale gas is the same as other natural gas. It’s all methane.

    Citation please. Minor contaminants that aren’t saturated hydrocarbons, like ethylene, propylene, or acetylene, can make the mixture more flammable than methane, and change nature of the gas from a safety standpoint.

  38. 38
    ck

    kevinalexander wrote:

    I forgot to mention that pipelines are tubes that deliver flaming death and so are protected by the second amendment.

    This particular flaming death tube was not. Canada doesn’t have a “second amendment” or the ridiculous gun culture it bred. Getting authorization to purchase shotguns and hunting rifles isn’t terribly difficult (requires a safety course and license), but all handguns and the U.S. favorite AR15 are restricted (or in some cases, prohibited) here. This doesn’t exactly prevent criminals from smuggling handguns across the border, but at least it’s more difficult than merely purchasing or stealing one locally.

  39. 39
    frankb

    A couple of decades ago I was driving in the evening and saw a large but compact fire burning into the night sky. I drove a couple of miles to the edge of town and saw that it was a lot farther than I thought. I gave up and turned around. I learned later that it was a pipeline station five miles from where I stopped. Emergency crews worked for several days to extinguish the fire. Luckily there were only farm fields around it. Pipeline accidents are serious business. Flaming death is right.

  40. 40
    unclefrogy

    we have these dangerous technologies trains and pipe lines, we have these dangerous materials that are being moved around sometimes there are terrible accidents the frequency is not widely publicized.
    How much does regulation and enforcement and the lack there of have to do with these events?
    Why flare off gas and not use it for on-site power generation if you even have to use it in something as “old fashioned” as boilers? There are other more efficient modern alternatives.

    uncle frogy

  41. 41
    Area Man

    Obama even made a point of mentioning that we’ve become a net oil exporter in his state of the union address…

    I don’t know what his actual words were, but we are definitely not a net oil exporter. Not remotely close. In fact, it’s illegal to export oil.

    What has happened is that we now produce more oil than we import, which is another way of saying that we now import slightly less than half of what we consume. Not only does that have nothing to do with being a net exporter, it’s an arbitrary and meaningless metric. What exactly is magical about a 50% threshold?

  42. 42
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Shale gas is the same as other natural gas. It’s all methane. The only difference is how they get it out of the ground.

    Methane is the major component of natural gas, but the minor components can vary, and this matters quite a bit.

  43. 43
    microraptor

    Chengis Khan- Post 8:

    I absolutely keep away from all speculative views and conspiracy theories, including the theory of the existence of god. But I think the oils companies play a big role in keeping these news from getting due exposure (if #3 hillaryrettig are the type of people who watch out for these issues and if they are unaware of it…).

    It’s not a conspiracy theory if there’s a group with an obvious motive for committing the action and the means to carry it out. At that point, it’s justified suspicion.

    And the oil companies certainly have done a lot to try and spin various disasters they’ve caused to make them sound like it wasn’t the oil company’s fault or the problem wasn’t as bad as people said: just look at the Deepwater Horizon clusterfuck and how much BP spent on PR over it.

  44. 44
    rnilsson

    Late to this fireworks, sorry, but:
    During the Cold War (no, not the recent Polar Vortex, but the geo-political stand-off of yore) there occurred a huge and devastating explosion of a strategic Soviet pipeline somewhere in Siberia. It was later leaked that the cause of this disaster was due to a deliberate sabotage by US entities. By sly means they had enticed the Soviets into illicitly copying software that had been manipulated to allow remote control, and one day the puppet masters decided to pull on their strings and fake the readouts of pressure sensors etc, so that the pipeline operators were tempted to increase gas pressure beyond rupture point.

    The result was reported to approximate a nuclear detonation in effect and set back Soviet economy considerably, as well as confounding most if not all use of computers and software with stolen designs (which was almost all), for quite some time to come. This may have contributed not insignificantly to the demise of the Soviet Union.

    – All this from feeble memory. I think i.a. Bruce Schneier wrote about this some years ago, but can’t really be gassed to go investigate just now.

  45. 45
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    It might be safer to have these flammable chemicals sent by pipeline than loaded into tanker trucks and dispatched along our highways. What is the accident rate for trucks carrying gasoline, propane, and the like?

    Of course I would like to see pipelines regulated for safety and environmental concerns. I didn’t know that they weren’t. Of course, it cuts into profits when the pipelines aren’t piping!

  46. 46
    microraptor

    It may cut into profits when the pipelines aren’t piping, but apparently it doesn’t cut into the profits nearly as much as following proper safety protocols and regulations do.

Comments have been disabled.