THE BLOG
12/14/2010 02:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Playing With Fire -- The Sham of Pipeline Safety Regulation

Do you know whether you live, work, shop or play near a high-pressure pipeline like the one that blew up Sept. 9 in the San Francisco Peninsula town of San Bruno, killing eight people, burning 60 more, destroying or severely damaging 120 homes and leaving a crater 40 feet deep?

Until it blew up, Mayor Jim Ruane and nearly everyone else in San Bruno did not know that a 30-inch natural gas pipeline operating at 1,000 pounds per square inch was buried under the city 54 years ago -- and never inspected by its owner, Pacific Gas & Electric.

This morning the National Transportation Safety Board issues its report on what caused the blast.

But that report will do nothing about the festering problems with how government handles safety issues along the 300,000 miles of high-pressure natural gas pipelines and 200,000 miles of liquid pipelines moving gasoline, diesel and jet fuel at scalding hot temperatures.About two million more miles of pipeline distribute gas to homes and offices.

Do you know how to locate transmission pipelines like the one that exploded -- or the one that runs under a tot lot in San Bruno? Do you know if the streets where your children ride bikes conceal a large bore pipeline granted a "special permit," a waiver of safety rules allowing it to operate even though in spots corrosion has eaten though more than a quarter of the pipeline wall?

If you want to locate the pipelines around you -- and especially the segments granted safety waivers -- how would you find out?

The disturbing answers are in my package of reporting today at remappingdebate.org.

That's a new nonprofit website devoted to examining the whys, and why nots, of public policy.

Many millions of Americans live, work, shop and play near natural gas and petroleum pipelines that crisscross America. Many were laid down decades ago in open spaces that are now heavily populated. Every big city in America has corroding high-pressure pipelines, some in use long past their design life.

The risk of a pipeline rupture at any specific spot is incredibly minute, but when a pipeline does explode there is an officially estimated "high consequence area." That's the official language for death zone.

The federal government requires that you be notified if you live in a "high consequence area." Even if you were notified you probably have no idea you were. Find out at remappingdebate.org how government helps the pipeline industry mislead you through clever tricks in the fine print.

Among those killed in San Bruno was a California Public Utilities Commission staffer and her teenage daughter. Her job? Investigating pipeline safety.

After you finish reading my reporting, ask yourself this: would you get on an airplane if government regulated commercial aviation the way it regulated pipelines?