08/19/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

Fossil Fuel Collateral Damage

An Enbridge pipeline ruptured in July 2010 and the cleanup is still going on today In July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, spilling some 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Today the spill is still being cleaned up. And it is by no means the country's only big pipeline spill taking its toll on the environment and surrounding communities. (EPA)

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. (A couple others are listed in this related post.) 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]

U.S. oil trunklines 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.

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok | Find us on Facebook