Tien: Pipeline blast reminds us of our dependence on a few key infrastructure systems

Thursday, November 3, 2016
Screenshot of a Sierra Magazine story about the impact of an explosion at a gas pipeline in Alabama.

The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline in Alabama after an explosion Oct. 31 underscores how little redundancy exists in many of our key infrastructure systems, according to the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Iris Tien.

Stopping the flow of fuel through the 5,500-mile pipeline sparked fears of gas shortages throughout the Southeast just a few months after a spill from the same network limited fuel supplies for the region and led to hours-long waits at gas stations.

Tien told Sierra Magazine Nov. 3 the impact of shutting down a single pipeline illustrates that “we don’t have a lot of redundancy when it comes to these gas pipelines, so we rely on very few sources for a lot of our supply.”

More from Sierra’s Matt Smith:

The pipeline blast—and the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline halfway across the country—highlight a chronic problem in the United States: Much of the web of pipes that deliver oil, natural gas, and other fuels is aging badly, making it prone to environmentally damaging spills or disasters, like the 2010 natural gas explosion that killed eight people near San Francisco. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure a grade of D-plus and warned that more than 1.5 million miles of gas and oil pipes need better inspections and maintenance.

“I think a lot of gains could be made by being more proactive and having investments that are possible for more maintenance and retrofits,” Tien said. But there’s little financial incentive to build backups for big pipelines, and many utilities spend just enough to keep them going, “much less actually do improvements and preventative measures before things happen.”

“I would say going to more distributed generation and having more alternatives down the line would definitely help,” Tien said. “But it’s hard to say in the current state what would be economically feasible to reduce our vulnerabilities. It’s a tough problem, and these events show how reliant we are on these very few lines or systems.”