Sunday, September 12, 2010

Taking Pipelines for Granted

A series of energy-related failures and disasters this month points to a pattern of neglect in energy infrastructure. Thursday, in San Bruno, California, a natural gas pipeline leak created an explosion large enough to leave a crater and flatten nearby houses. The same day, an oil pipeline in Illinois was shut down after it began leaking, interrupting the flow of oil from Canada to U.S. refineries. The pipeline owner has started to excavate the damaged pipe, which continues to leak oil. A week earlier, of course, there was the offshore oil platform explosion, which led to a minor leak and corresponding coverup.

When money is tight, businesses tend to slow down maintenance activities, which can make failures happen more frequently. This could especially happen in the energy sector, where there is a strong tendency to take the energy infrastructure for granted — to imagine that a pipeline or other installation will simply stay put. Energy companies, for their part, insist that they are not cutting corners. Yet they find themselves cleaning up after failures that they would rather have avoided.