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Oil spills hit on land, too: Aging pipelines imperil Midwest

Oil spills in recent weeks, from Canadian-owned pipelines that supply Midwest refineries, are another sign of nation's aging infrastructure. Latest spill expected to raise Midwest gas prices by 30 cents a gallon for several weeks.

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The Midwest spills coincide with a natural gas pipeline that erupted outside San Francisco last week, killing 4 people and destroying over 30 homes. Although the National Transportation Safety Board investigation to root out a cause is ongoing, the agency reports that the pipeline, owned by PG&E Corp. of San Francisco, was built in 1956. The Enbridge pipe in Illinois started operating in 1968.

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Aging national network

These incidents are drawing attention to the aging network of liquid and natural gas pipelines in the US. According to the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group in Bellingham, Wash. that promotes fuel transportation safety, the majority of both natural gas and liquid pipelines in the US were installed before 1970. The peak installment years for both kinds of pipelines were between 1950 and 1969, a time period that accounts for about 40 percent of the pipelines built between 1920 and today.

Pipelines dating back as much as 60 years are an issue “because they don’t have the same kind of steel, the same kind of anti-corrosion coating that new pipelines do,” says Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Mr. Weimer argues that increased federal regulation is needed to maintain and repair the aging infrastructure. Current pipeline inspections are limited to special sections located in “high consequence areas,” a designation having to do with population density near the pipelines. According to Weimer, the designation only covers 44 percent of liquid pipelines and just 7 percent of natural gas pipelines of the total number that exist in the US. The majority of pipelines that do not fall under that category do not get checked.

However the numbers show inspections are crucial. Between 2002-2008, over 34,000 anomalies on pipelines were discovered and repaired due to internal company inspections, he says. Weimer warns that state and federal regulating agencies don’t have “enough resources to verify the companies are doing the right thing” with the findings that result from the inspections.

Enbridge plays a significant role in providing for the daily energy needs of US consumers. There are 9,500 miles in its pipeline network that delivers liquid crude in the Midwest. Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the US, delivering 2.2 million barrels, or 92.4 million gallons, a day, which represents about 10 percent of daily oil consumption here, according to the US Energy Department in June.