There has been no accountability for the vast majority of interstate oil and gas pipeline fires and explosions over the last decade.
That’s according to a recent report from Energy and Environment News (E&E), which found that the government agency responsible for enforcement in the pipeline industry has been hesitant to impose any penalties, across both the Obama and Trump administrations.
The publication found that since 2010, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction, only imposed fines in 13 of 137 pipeline fires and explosions between 2010 and today. The combined total of those fines was just $5.4 million, which E&E estimates is less than even just one day of profits for pipeline giant Transcanada. The outlet also reported that the total amount in fines the PHMSA imposed is actually $2 million less than what Transcanada CEO Russ Girling made in total 2017 compensation.
Pipeline explosions have become more common over the years since the drilling and fracking boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s. As Citylab reported, Texas alone has seen roughly 500 pipeline fires and explosions since 2009, which is approximately 100 more incidents than in the period between 2002-2009. As recently as August, an explosion near Carlsbad, New Mexico killed 10 campers. Three infants and two toddlers were killed in the blast.
“They were consumed by a huge ball of fire,” New Mexico state police Lieutenant Larry Rogers told ABC News.
Steve Horn, a journalist who has extensively covered the pipeline industry, told Grit Post that the government’s soft response to the epidemic of pipeline-related fires and explosions “has become the default cost of doing business for essentially every politician in America” in the years since the drilling boom.
“The industry has tons of leverage and expertise to maneuver regulatory bodies and essentially control them via the revolving door, donations to congressional members and the White House, Governors and state representatives,” Horn said. “What would be more surprising is if a politician took on big oil from either party, not that they treat the industry with kid gloves.”
Horn’s assessment of the industry’s political clout is accurate, when looking at the amount of money spent on lobbying. Since it began keeping records in 1998, the Center for Responsive Politics found that the oil and gas industry ranks #6 in lobbying money, spending $2.1 billion influencing federal lawmakers over the last two decades.
PHMSA is currently headed by Howard “Skip” Elliott. President Trump appointed him in September of 2017 after a long stint as a top executive for railroad giant CSX Transportation. As ThinkProgress reported at the time, CSX trains have been involved in several major incidents in which they derailed and/or exploded while carrying oil and coal.
In October, Elliott told attendees of an oil and gas trade show that he didn’t see a need for increased enforcement in the pipeline industry, instead hinting that further industry deregulation would decrease the number of fires and explosions, rather than “punitive measures” like fines and other enforcement.
“[I]t is not as though we are going to inspire further carefulness with punitive measures,” Elliott said. “Instead, what we must seek is to support the efforts already being made by industry stakeholders…to find ways to enable them to pursue safety in smarter, more consistent, and more effective ways.”
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.