Blast Prompts Scrutiny of Aging U.S. Pipelines

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"The PG&E pipeline that exploded in San Bruno was built in 1956."

The San Bruno gas pipe explosion last week and a Chicago oil pipeline leak are likely to draw regulators' attention to fuel transportation networks, some of which have been in service more than four decades.

Four people are confirmed dead and four are missing after the Sept. 9 explosion of a 54-year-old PG&E natural-gas pipeline in San Bruno. The blast happened one day after an Enbridge crude-oil line leaked near Chicago, forcing a shutdown threatening fuel supplies in the Midwest. The Enbridge pipe, which can handle 670,000 bpd, started service in 1968.

The U.S. is crisscrossed with more than 2.5 million miles of fuel pipelines, or enough to circle the earth about 100 times. U.S. regulators may now step up inspections and increase the industry's maintenance costs, said RBC Pipeline Analyst Mark Easterbrook.

"Regulators will probably look for more integrity spending on pipelines," Easterbrook said. "We're probably going to see incremental increases in the future, with more attention on older pipelines."

Much of the underground infrastructure in the U.S., which also includes water and sewer pipes, has been in use for more than 50 years and needs to be evaluated and, where needed, replaced, said Blaine Leonard, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"Just because it's old doesn't mean it's in bad shape, but the risk is certainly increased," Leonard, a civil engineer in Utah, said. "There's a lot of hidden infrastructure and we can't be complacent about it. So much of our economy and quality of life depends on it."

The PG&E pipeline that exploded last week in San Bruno was built in 1956, according to National Transportation Safety Board Spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz, who is overseeing all probes into the incident. Investigators haven't yet pinpointed the cause of the San Bruno blast.

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