by Gabe Scott
Last week’s massive refinery fire in Richmond, California should serve as a wake-up call. Not that we needed another to remind us of a basic fact: oil and gas infrastructure is dangerous. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, very quickly.
Add this to the list of reasons why the Pacific Connector Pipeline and LNG export terminal at Coos Bay is a bad idea: it’s not safe.
I’ve been participating lately in a nationwide citizen committee on pipeline safety, put together by the Pipeline Safety Trust (http://www.pstrust.org/initiatives_programs/New-Voices-Project/). The opportunity to share information and learn from activists, landowners, industry and regulators has been astounding, and has opened my eyes to the downsides of natural gas infrastructure that, as an environmentalist, I admit I hadn’t given enough thought to.
Here’s the thing about gas pipelines and LNG plants — they blow up. They blow up a lot. They blow up big. And the people who you might expect would put safety first, don’t.
Liquefied Natural Gas, like natural gas, is highly flammable. When spilled, it can easily go “boom.” As a matter of fact, because of its physical properties, spilled LNG also goes “boom” when it comes in contact with water, a phenomenon called “rapid phase transition” (see below video). In 2004, an explosion at an Algerian LNG liquefaction facility killed 27.
The Pipeline phase of the project would transmit natural gas through a 36” diameter transmission pipeline. Gas pipeline explosions can be massively destructive. In 1994, a 36-inch gas distribution line in Edison, New Jersey broke, threw rocks and debris more than 800 feet, and exploded in a blaze over 400 feet high— hot enough to ignite and burn several nearby apartment buildings. Last year, five were killed in Allentown, PA when a gas explosion flattened a rowhouse neighborhood, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. It took workers another five hours to figure out how to shut off the gas flow.
One of our concerns with the Pacific Connector pipeline is that the safety regulations are even weaker in rural areas than in populated neighborhoods, so families living along the Pacific Connector pipeline are at even greater risk. Getting blown up isn’t usually on our safety list when hiking and camping in wild lands, but the pipeline would make that risk real. In 2000, 12 campers were killed by a gas pipeline explosion near Carlsbad, NM.
These aren’t isolated examples. Leaks and explosions on this sort of pipeline are disturbingly common. In an average year, looking only at gas transmission pipelines (which is what Williams proposes), there are 113 reported incidents causing 2 fatalities, eleven injuries, and over $132 million in property damage. (Source: PHMSA http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/safety/AllPSI.html?nocache=1948#_ngtrans)
Oil and gas companies are fond of touting a “safety first” mentality. This is not just propaganda spin. Give credit where it’s due: they really do devote immense energy to safety, and their engineering know-how is breathtaking.
The trouble is there are so many things that can go wrong. Pipes corrode. Valves leak and get stuck. Unknowing construction workers dig into unmarked pipelines. People make mistakes. Equipment fails. Earthquakes and floods happen. There are a thousand and one things that can go wrong, any one of which can kill you.
While one should give the industry credit for taking the engineering aspects of safety very seriously, their record on risk management and public process is dastardly. They are secretive, competitive, and selfish. They make the same “mistakes,” over and over again.
After the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed fifteen, a blue-ribbon panel was formed to investigate, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker. The panel’s recommendations centered on what they termed a “safety culture” and “process safety.” Details quickly get complicated, but the underlying notion is simple: when trying to make complex industrial systems safe, you need to analyze and address the whole ball of wax, not just this and that component.
After the 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, another blue-ribbon panel was formed. Their conclusions were damning. Process safety and safety culture were still not being implemented. And, the Commission found, these problems were not unique to BP, but endemic in the oil & gas industry.
As we look at the Pacific Connector Pipeline and LNG terminal, familiar warning signs are everywhere. I’ll leave you with just one example. As Cascadia’s staff digs into the details, we have hit a roadblock. The company won’t share its maps, even with landowners along the proposed route. Their excuse is the preposterous claim that exact locations of the proposed line must be kept secret, to keep it out of the hands of would-be terrorists.
That’s hogwash. Fundamental to pipeline safety and planning is everyone needs to know where, exactly, the line is. This information is needed whenever anyone digs a hole, whenever there is a leak that needs to be investigated, whenever a wildfire fighting crew is planning their attack on a blaze. You need to plan to avoid flooding streams, landslide areas, and places planned for other kinds of construction. You need to site the line to allow regular access for maintenance and surveillance.
Terrorism IS a real fear. But hiding maps from landowners does nothing to prevent it. Far from requiring gas pipeline locations be kept secret (as if that were even possible), federal regulations require gas pipelines be clearly marked with bright yellow signs.
The supposed security rationale is so absurd, so wrong-headed, that it calls into question the company’s basic trustworthiness. It suggests that Williams views this as their project, none of anyone’s business. That’s a pretty arrogant line to take when you’re forcibly appropriating other people’s private land through eminent domain.
Far from putting safety first, indications are Williams is putting it’s own pocketbook first, last, and in the middle. That’s not just selfish. It’s also very, very dangerous.
Please join Cascadia Wildlands in sending the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission a message on the Pacific Connector Pipeline. Click here to comment and do not be concerned when you get a message from FERC that your comment may not be considered. We will make sure that your support of our concerns and any additional comments you provide will go to the appropriate place and be heard. They will get our collective message.