A “Large Blowtorch”

I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want a pipeline going through their area.

Two workers suffered burns, one seriously, and another was unaccounted for after a large explosion and fire Thursday night (Feb. 9) at a 20-inch high-pressure Phillips 66 pipeline at the Williams Discovery natural-gas plant in Paradis, according to St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne and Louisiana State Police [nola.com]

It’s not just that these things leak: fuel/air explosions can be pretty nasty, too. And, once they’re burning sometimes the only way to put them out is to stop the flow and let it burn until there’s nothing left to burn.


Officials don’t expect any environmental damage: “It’s a clean hot fire.”

“A large blowtorch.”

Considering the pipe was carrying propane, yeah, I bet it was. Good thing there was only one casualty and one “unaccounted for” – which may be code for “was blown to pieces.”

Look how hot that is! The telephone pole about 40′ away is smoking, and you can see the tires on the parked trucks are smoking, too.


  1. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    pipelines don’t blow up, they’re just tubes
    blowing-up occurs where there is lots of technology and no

  2. lorn says

    Pipelines, kind of like airframes (airplanes built in the 40s can still be safe if maintained conscientiously) , can be run indefinitely with very little risk. Unfortunately really careful inspection and maintenance is expensive and this cost conflicts with the desire for an ever increasing profit margin. Vintage airplanes are often kept running at great expense by enthusiasts or the military, neither of which are greatly concerned with showing a profit.

    The organizations building and operating pipelines are usually under considerable pressure to keep costs, like inspection and maintenance, low and profits high. When they push their luck too far things get ugly:


    A really detailed analysis of how it failed, and why:


  3. says

    @1 chigau (ever-elliptical
    piplines do blow up. Because they are not only tubes, but quite often tubes filled with highly flammable materials. And such materials can blow up quite easily.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    There’s a question I’ve always had about pipelines that stretch hundreds of miles, especially ones that go over groundwater and near reservoirs:

    You’re the Department of Homeland Security. I am a terrorist with access to a backhoe. How do you stop me?

  5. says

    You’re the Department of Homeland Security. I am a terrorist with access to a backhoe. How do you stop me?

    Backhoes are slow and hard to come by. A small shaped charge and a timer would work better. I think the pipelines are pretty tough material. Probably the easiest and most untraceable attack on a pipeline would be to make a timered pipe-bomb pig and send it right down the line itself. The picture above, of the explosion, shows a pigging station (I believe) where a plug can be put into the pipe to push accumulated goo down to a cleanout port – it would make sense that’s where an accident would occur. One could probably do tremendous damage without a backhoe necessary, by manipulating the cleanout port and having some basic incendiary device handy (e.g. A timer and a highway flare) I’m sure a bit of research would be all that was necessary.

    Of course, when it happens, the FBI and DHS will back-trawl the internet and now we’ll both be investigated.

  6. says

    The San Bruno incident has an NTSB report, which I assume is definitive, fascinating, and surprisingly readable. Skimming it now suggests that not much has changed at the NTSB since I last binge-read accident reports. They remain steely-eyed devotees of the truth, afraid of, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing.


    But further to the issue at hand.

    Our modern civilization, no matter how you imagine it, requires high energy densities. You can move hydrocarbons around in pipes, on trains, in ships. You can shovel electricity around on wires, or I suppose in batteries. I could wind up immense flywheels and truck them around the country, albeit only only arrow straight routes.

    No matter what you do, though, high energy densities are required. They are required near human habitations, because having a whole bunch of energy super far away from my stove, my home, my mode of transportation, does me no good.

    Having any kind of high energy density storage or transport near me poses a risk, period. Full stop. Occasionally, it’s gonna escape, and shit nearby is gonna vaporize, because that’s how energy works. That sucks. In at least this section of our modern society, it is almost always going to escape because multiple people screwed up at multiple points in time, and then someone got unlucky at some particularly inauspicious moment.

    Are we at some irreducible minimum number of fatalities, injuries, destruction? Probably not. But here in the USA we’re awfully close to it, thanks to the cold hearted bastards at the NTSB and a handul of other, similar, organizations.

    Should we stop yowling loudly when people do get blown up, electrocuted, drowned, and so on? Certainly not. This is precisely the mechanic by which the numbers are kept low, and safety high.

    But we *should* recognize that we’re all culpable. It is because living in this particular society is so damned attractive that we have these pipelines, these power lines, these trains and trucks, these wells, that we have the corresponding accidents and deaths. It’s all fun and games to blame PG&E management, or Phillips, or whomever. While they surely must shoulder part of the blame let us quietly, with our inside voices, acknowledge that our unwillingness to return to the nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle plays its own part in all this.

  7. Brian English says

    I had an image of a poor swine, with a timed pipe-bomb being shoved into a pipeline there for a moment.

  8. says

    Andrew Molitor@#6:
    No matter what you do, though, high energy densities are required.

    Yup. It makes the society particularly vulnerable to attacks against energy storage and transportation. One could do a great deal of damage with an off the shelf drone trailing a long piece of heavy braided copper wire. It’s a fundamental weakness in the system.

    I remember when someone was talking about flywheel vehicles – great idea: spin up a carbon/ceramic flywheel to the point where you could drive around for a day by just bleeding the energy off that, mechanically. The energy density of that was more or less “a bomb” and – unlike the gasoline in a car’s tank (also: “a bomb”) – it would release fairly suddenly.

    I think that given the problem of moving energy around, it makes sense for people who are going to be living near the transport, to be concerned about it.

  9. says

    Brian English@#7:
    I had an image of a poor swine, with a timed pipe-bomb being shoved into a pipeline there for a moment.

    The scary thing is that it doesn’t take a lot of perusing of the internet to learn how to operate a pigging station. So you’d need a pipe bomb with an internal timer and detonator – a simple enough thing to build – a pair of bolt cutters, and some research.

  10. Crimson Clupeidae says

    This type of discussion is the number one reason I think we will never manage to build space elevators.

    Sure, we could probably develop realistic technology to be able to engineer the structure and accomplish it, but …people.