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What Is the US Government Doing to Prevent the Next Oil Pipeline Disaster?

Four years after Congress passed a bill intended to make oil pipelines safer in the wake of a massive spill in Michigan, almost nothing has been done.
Photo by Paul Sancya/AP

Related: Watch VICE News' 'Pipeline Nation'

Spring has finally arrived in Michigan, which for many of us means renewed hope that Enbridge, the company responsible for spilling more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, will finally leave us alone.

Not long after that spill, Enbridge received state approval to replace 210 miles of its aging Line 6B pipeline across Michigan — including a section that runs literally through my backyard. For more than three years, those of us along the pipeline route have endured noise, nuisance, and disturbance as Enbridge has ripped up our property to install their new pipe. The new line has been up and running for nearly a year, transporting thousands of gallons of tar sands oil every day. Meanwhile, landowners continue to wait for the day when our properties are fully restored and construction crews are gone for good.


And this kind of experience isn't unique to Michigan. Pipelines have also failed In Allentown, Pennsylvania. In Tioga County, New York. And in Glendive, Montana, as VICE News' Pipeline Nation explores.

When projecting things out to the future — of national energy policy, of the health of the environment, of climate danger — there should be no tar sands pipelines. In the present, however, the fact is that there are tar sands pipelines, and so they should be as safe as they can possibly be.

We are currently in the midst of a robust international conversation about our energy future, a conversation driven in no small part by the contentious debate over the proposed Keystone XL project. But we aren't making enough room in that conversation for some equally robust talk about the present, about the safety and health of the 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the United States that have already been built.

While the nation fights over whether to build new oil and gas pipelines, our existing ones continue to burst, rupture, and leak. That devastates places like Harlem, New York. Jackson, Wisconsin. And Salt Lake City.

It has been five years since the Marshall disaster in Michigan — and also five years since the terrible San Bruno, California pipeline explosion that killed eight people — but federal regulators have done almost nothing to improve the safety of the nation's existing pipelines. Partly in response to these incidents and others like them, in 2011 Congress passed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act. Yet in the intervening time, the agency charged with implementing that bill's provisions, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has failed to finalize and institute any new major regulations.


Last week, I traveled to Washington, DC with my colleagues from the Pipeline Safety Trust to talk with regulators and legislators about this troubling state of affairs. We learned very little. We know that several new rule-making initiatives have been in the works at PHMSA for nearly four years, though we don't know much about what's in them. We also know that at some point this year Congress will review and, we hope, strengthen the federal pipeline safety program during its reauthorization.

But because Congress doesn't know any more about the new rules PHMSA is proposing than the public does, it's difficult to engage legislators in productive discussions about reauthorization. (Not to mention the fact that one of the top legislative priorities of this Congress has been a bill specifically designed to benefit a single foreign pipeline company.)

Pipeline operators could take it upon themselves to improve their safety records. Far too many incidents are caused by things that are entirely within operators' control — corrosion, weld and equipment failures, excavation damage caused by their contractors. These incidents could be reduced with, among other things, more frequent inspections, better assessment methods, and clearer standards for safety personnel. One of the greatest horrors of the Marshall, Michigan spill was the extent to which that failure and its consequences were entirely preventable. If only operators would invest as much energy in their integrity management systems and safety protocols as they do in burnishing their public images.

Related: Line 61, the oil pipeline that will dwarf Keystone XL

We need to demand more from our regulators and legislators. The evidence of the past four years suggests that both lack the will to impose stricter standards of safety and regulations that are easier to enforce before a pipeline fails instead of after. We need to insist upon more transparency in enforcing safety standards and greater public participation in rule-making processes. The current system, essentially a friendly collaboration between regulators and industry, is clearly not working. For proof, you need only go to Belton, South Carolina. Mayflower, Arkansas. And, unless something is done, perhaps a town near you.

Jeffrey Insko sits on the Pipeline Safety Trust board of directors. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffreyInsko