90% of pipeline explosions result in no financial penalties

"We know we can't expect corporate polluters to look out for our health, but we should be able to count on our enforcement agencies to protect us."


A new investigative report by E&E News has discovered that in 90 percent of the pipeline fires or explosions since 2010 no financial penalties were sought from the companies responsible.

Only 10% of the 137 pipeline blasts since 2010 have resulted in any sort of fines. The fines in that period totaled $5.4 million from the 13 cases where the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) actually sought financial penalties. That is less money than one day of profits for TransCanada Corp., the company that owns the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s also $2 million less than their CEO made last year.

PHMSA, a small unit of the Department of Transporation, is in charge of keeping interstate pipeline safe. They have to work with a $250 million budget and 540 employees, 200 of which are pipeline inspectors and are led by a former railroad executive, Howard “Skip” Elliott.

Not surprisingly, Elliott doesn’t support increased penalties against pipeline companies. During a speech to oil and gas trade groups last month he stated, “It is not as though we are going to inspire further carefulness with punitive measures.”

PHMSA regulates 350,000 miles of pipeline in the United States. 2 million miles of additional pipelines in the country is regulated by the states or is unregulated.

Several important cases that may result in some sort of financial penalty are still pending with PHMSA. One is a 2016 gas line explosion in Pennsylvania which resulted in a man being severely burned to the point where he had to have his right arm and leg amputated. PHMSA has not taken steps to seek a fine in this case.

Pipeline companies like to point out that serious pipeline incidents are relatively rare, considering how many miles they span and how much natural gas is transported on a daily basis, but we’re sure that this isn’t any comfort to the people that have been affected by pipeline accidents or that currently live near enough to be affected by one.

According to the Washington Post, more than 300 people have died and 1,200 have been injured due to natural gas pipeline incidents in the last 20 years. These numbers have the potential to increase as the U.S.’s natural gas distribution network ages. Unfortunately, it looks like the PHMSA is not in a hurry to show that pipeline accidents come with consequences.

As Kelly Martin, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Guels campaign director stated in response to E&E’s investigation, “We know we can’t expect corporate polluters to look out for our health, but we should be able to count on our enforcement agencies to protect us. Stories like these show exactly why we should never build another fracked gas pipeline, especially when clean, renewable energy sources are abundant and affordable,”


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