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Although the Keystone XL pipeline is still making headlines, it’s easy to forget that those aren’t the only pipelines to focus on when it comes to safety.  With 2.5 million of miles of pipelines transporting the bulk of the US oil and natural gas, the Keystone XL pipeline seems insignificant compared to the spider web of pipes below our feet currently.

While these older, urban pipeline networks have issues, gas and oil lines in general have been found to be one of the most efficient and safe methods for transporting oil and gas across the country.

The Regulation of Oil and Gas Pipelines

The Department of Transportation is primarily responsible for administering oil and gas pipeline networks across the country through the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

This administration sets the federal regulations involving pipeline safety across the country and collects data from all incidents that result in fatalities, hospitalizations or spills over five gallons.

It does not directly regulate intrastate pipeline networks. These networks are managed by various state agencies, usually in the transportation or environmental departments.

Urban networks, like the one related in the East Harlem explosion back in March, are directly managed by the companies responsible for distributing the gas to homes and businesses. The names of these vary by state, but they all follow similar safety and regulatory procedures and protocols.

There are many protocols in place to monitor pipeline networks, including risk-assessments and monitoring. Even the PHMSA admits, however, that 100 percent security of the pipeline network is impossible.

This means that accidents and spills will happen. The goal then becomes not to prevent every spill or leak, but to prevent larger or catastrophic failures and to be able to take swift action when a spill or leak does occur in order to minimize damage and maximize recovery of spilled material.

The range of individual regulations contained in the government’s Pipeline Security and Incident Recovery Protocol Plan is large, but it can be largely distilled down to several key factors.

Technology and Security

Since is it basically impossible to visually secure a pipeline structure or network, providers make use of the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system to provide the most accurate data and indication of any leaks or issues. Providing the proper technology security against cyber attacks on this system is also paramount.

Damage Control and Reroute

Providers must have pans in place to deal with large-scale failures. The plan emphasizes preparation.

This can include ready clean-up crews and machinery, evacuation plans, emergency services aids and secondary systems to shutoff or reroute the flow of material to a secondary line or system.

In terms of major lines, the ability to reroute the line and maintain supply is considered critical to infrastructure safety.

Long Term Repair and Maintenance

Finally, orders for long-term repair and safety maintenance are discussed. This also appears to be the major issue with aging urban networks made of iron and prone to corrosion and stress damage.

What Can be Done?

Taken together, pipeline networks provide a relatively safe and effective means of transporting materials as can be determined by examining the data and reports published by the Manhattan Institute.

The pipeline is also found superior to road and rail transport, which are currently the only alternatives.

The major step now becomes updating infrastructure that is simply too old to be considered reliable.

Modern pipelines are advanced, heavily computerized and very safe, but older pipelines are less so.

It can be concluded that major efforts to replace these old urban pipelines, especially in major east coast metropolitan areas, should be the primary focus of pipeline safety efforts.