Michigan Pipeline Spill – A Warning Shot

Turns out the pipeline that failed in Michigan last week, spilling a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River that’s still threatening to reach Lake Michigan, was installed in 1969. Still no word on why it failed but corrosion is a constant battle for pipeline operators like Enbridge.

Like who?

Most oil, gas, and refined-products pipeline, onshore and offshore, is owned and operated by companies you’ve probably never heard of (without the brand name or deep pockets of a company like BP or Exxon). Enbridge is a Canadian company that claims to operate the world’s largest pipeline network – 15,000 miles of pipe in the US and Canada. They also have a rap sheet of recent, major spills and fatal incidents (although we don’t know if their record is any worse than most other pipeline operators).

Active oil and gas pipelines in the US Gulf of Mexico. Data from US Minerals Management Service (downloaded March 25, 2009).

There are about 25,000 miles of active oil and gas pipeline on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico, connecting 3600 platforms and tens of thousands of wells to coastal storage, processing and distribution facilities. Much of this infrastructure is getting old – drilling began offshore in the Gulf in the 1940s. Are pipeline operators doing a better job inspecting, maintaining and replacing the pipes offshore than they are onshore?

Keeping an independent eye on this vast, aging infrastructure is yet another reason we think Gulf-wide satellite monitoring should be a routine activity, not a service limited only to emergencies like the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.