Aging pipelines might fuel oil sands debate

By Steve Boggs

The rupture in Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline near Mayflower last week has touched off numerous debates about the present state of America’s aging pipeline system. The pipeline that spilled 12,000 gallons of Canadian oil was originally laid in the 1940s, and its soundness 70 years later should be called into question.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, in a report issued last year, noted that half of America’s oil and gas pipeline network was installed in the 1950s and 1960s. Those pipelines are not getting any younger, and incidents such as the one at Mayflower will become more frequent in the years ahead.
Arkansas has hundreds of pipelines under its surface. For most of us, they are out of sight, out of mind. There’s a good chance you live within a few miles of a major oil or gas pipeline. Only when they rupture, or leak, do they make the news. The rest of the time, they carry oil and gas from wells to refineries and processing plants nationwide. Virtually every state has them, and until a better system comes along, they remain the safest and most efficient way to move the country’s energy lifeblood to market.
The residents impacted by the spill in Mayflower should and will seek compensation from Exxon Mobil. The company made $41 billion in profit in 2011, and we’re guessing they are prepared to pay for failures in their pipeline network.
Our frustration with “big oil” is not what they do, but what happens when they cut corners. The BP spill in the gulf was a direct result of safety procedures not being followed. In Mayflower, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has already put a legal hold on all documentation about the spill there. We will eventually know whether the spill was a result of the pipeline’s age, or if the company failed to properly maintain it.
Pipelines serve a vital function to the economy of the U.S., and there is a growing need to replace many of them. While Mayflower is a bad situation all the way around, we should not let it become a keystone in the fight against the pipeline network itself. It should serve as a notice that a massive infusion of capital is needed to upgrade and expand our ability to move energy around the country.
We often read about how America’s infrastructure is decaying. Every stimulus bill coming out of Washington has some sort of “shovel-ready” package to build roads and bridges. But we don’t often hear about the other aspects of our infrastructure, like the electrical power grid, underground pipelines or even high-speed internet access.
In the case of pipelines, the private sector should – and in many cases wants to – upgrade and expand the network. We should hold them accountable, and make sure they do not cut corners. We also need to remove roadblocks where we can.
Taking advantage of alternative energy sources is still a goal, and should be pursued. But they are a long way from being able to provide the amount of energy this country consumes every day. For the foreseeable future, oil and gas will power this country. And Mayflower will become the rule, not the exception, unless we replace and upgrade the methods used to move energy to the end user.

Steve Boggs is publisher of The Saline Courier. He can be reached at