Monday, November 12, 2007

More Questions Than Answers in the Pipeline

OK, I need to modify a comment I made yesterday.

Specifically, this one: "While the Star-Telegram toils relentlessly to tell you about the horse race to sign neighborhoods in the Barnett Shale, the Dallas Morning News and the Denton Record-Chronicle are busy doing actual journalism."

I still find most of the Startlegram's coverage of the Barnett Shale to be too much on the rah-rah side, but I think that my comment is unfair to Mike Lee's reporting.

I think Mike is doing good public service journalism on Barnett Shale topics, and he did so again on Sunday with his story on how little say communities have on the natural gas pipelines that run through them.

One of the more interesting points of the story -- a subsidiary of Chesapeake Energy has applied for permission to run a pipeline under the Fort Worth & Western Railroad tracks. The tracks run through Trinity Park, then southward past Lily B. Clayton Elementary School and the Mistletoe Heights and Berkeley Place neighborhoods.

That pipeline will run about a football field away from the elementary school. Plus that right-of-way might carry a future commuter rail line -- that is if you can build a rail line on top of a pipeline. Doesn't sound like a great idea, does it?

Lee's story also shines a light on the lack of effectiveness of oversight from the Texas Railroad Commission. Recent reports from WFAA and The Dallas Morning News indicate that the commission watered down a report on defective gas pipe couplings that were involved in several fatal explosions.

Although the Railroad Commission contends it is doing a good job on pipeline safety, the facts show otherwise. Mike Lee writes: "In 2000, the Commission directed Texas natural gas utilities to remove all Poly 1 pipe in their systems, after finding evidence of substantial material failures. ... Poly 1 was a type of plastic pipe used in the early 1970s. A Star-Telegram investigation in 2004 showed that Lone Star Gas, a predecessor to Atmos Energy, knew the pipe was prone to cracking even before the company began using it. The Railroad Commission learned about the problems with Poly 1 pipe in 1983, 17 years before ordering the pipe's removal."

17 years. Wow.

If that doesn't scare you about the quality of the oversight we get from the Railroad Commission, consider this: the Texas Railroad commissioners receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the oil and gas industry. In 2006, Michael Williams received $106,765, Victor Carillo received $164,154 and Elizabeth Ames Jones received $640,388. And to think, I was worried about Railroad Commission inspectors getting free lunches from gas companies.

Jones is my favorite commissioner by far. Her qualifications for the job? She's a former interior decorator. Kind of reminds me of Michael "Heckuva Job Brownie" Brown, who parlayed running horse shows into mismanaging the Hurricane Katrina response. Isn't America a great country?

Anyway, this a roundabout way of pointing out that not everybody is asleep at the switch at 400 West 7th. My apologies to Mike, but Mike's only one guy. Maybe his editors ought to throw a few more bodies at covering public safety and environmental impact aspects at the Barnett Shale coverage. I think this could be a Pulitzer-winning topic for the S-T. I think the issues are there. All they have to do is report the facts.

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