Worst Oil Spill in Midwest Raises Pipeline Concerns

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The rupture of a 30-inch oil pipeline on Monday in southwestern Michigan released 20,000 barrels of thick dark sludge that flowed into the Kalamazoo River, making it the worst oil spill in the midwest, according to various news reports.

It doesn't compare to the millions of gallons of oil currently drifting through the Gulf of Mexico. Not by a long shot: for three months, somewhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels were thought to be gushing into the sea every day.

But for those of us who thought we were safe from spills because we don't live along the gulf coast, it's a good time to reflect: chances are, there's a pipeline in your back yard, and you didn't know it.

Tens of thousands of miles of crude oil, natural gas, and other hydrocarbon pipelines snake across the country (the above map from the Energy Information shows pipelines and compressor stations). Over the last three years, accidents have averaged a dozen fatalities, 58 injuries, and a quarter billion dollars in damage per year, according to Department of Transportation statistics. Of course any loss of life is too much, but given how much product the pipes move, their safety record isn't all that terrible. At least, not compared to BP's of late.

The spill in Michigan has tainted the Kalamazoo River and coated fish and birds in oil (at top, Canada geese are covered in muck from the spill). It's a bad scene, no question. But containment efforts appear to be preventing oil from making the 60-mile journey to Lake Michigan, and the pipeline, owned by Houston-based Enbridge Energy Partners, has been shut off. With luck, the damage will remain mostly local.

News coverage of the spill is almost certainly amplified by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the gulf. But it does raise an interesting question: should we be paying attention not just to the threat of oil spills from deep water drilling, but also to the less sexy hazards posed by the vast forest of pipelines carpeting the country?

Images: AP, EIA (via The Oil Drum)

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