Yesterday’s explosion of a natural gas pipeline in Minneapolis is again raising questions — at least locally — about the safety of our aging pipeline infrastructure.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports this morning that there was no obvious, proximate cause for the blast — no construction work or other disruption. The thing just blew up, and it may be months before we know why.

WCCO’s “Good Question” feature looks at the issue of pipeline safety, noting that there are only 100 federal inspectors to oversee 2 million miles of pipelines carrying oil, gas and other hazardous materials. In Minnesota, there are 12 engineers in charge of 65,000 miles.

About six months ago, following a natural gas pipeline rupture in California that killed seven people, a New York Times investigation found multiple reports raising alarms about a weak, ineffective oversight system for pipelines. The Times found:

  • Average fines for safety violations were only $30,000, and weren’t always being collected, according to the GAO
  • Of all the enforcement cases opened between 2002-2010, a third were unresolved
  • The number of fines issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fell by 40 percent between 2004 and 2009
  • Cases dating back to the early 1990s remain unresolved
  • It was also a ruptured pipeline that caused last summer’s oil spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy committee, has pledged to hold hearings about pipeline safety and support legislation strengthening oversight.

    There are currently two bills in the U.S. Senate, and one in the House, addressing pipeline oversight.

    S.234, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would provide additional resources to the PHMSA, among other provisions. S.275, introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), deals more specifically with oil and tar sands issues. And H.R.22, introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), sets tougher inspection standards and requires disclosure of pipeline locations and routes to the public.

    Photo by Matthew Lewinski via Creative Commons

    Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.