Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Trouble with Maps of U.S. Pipelines:
National Security vs. Public's Right to Know
[Originally posted Jan. 11, but I'm backing off much of my criticism a short day later on Jan. 12, after learning something new from a Natural Gas Forum for Landowners participant: 

1) The National Pipeline Mapping System's public viewer here currently resolves down to a scale of 1:24,000 (or 1" of mapped screen space representing 2,000' of on-the-ground reality) — and then at finer scales takes away the pipeline layers for national security reasons.  That's far more detailed than I previously would have thought advisable, but at least the decision is in the hands of officials, rather than activists. 

2) Based mainly on a single sample from my own personal knowledge of where the Dominion natural gas pipeline crosses the Tioughnioga River Valley — through "downtown" Blodgett's Mills, south of Cortland, NY — I'm concluding that the NPMS placement of pipelines is far more accurate and reliable than FracTracker, which in this case is off by miles.  With that as a "headnote" (rather than a "footnote"), I'll keep the rest of the commentary from my post intact, just because there is some useful information in there, and because it does show the evolution of my thinking.]

This is what I had to say on Jan. 10, 2014 in a not-yet "moderated" comment at the bottom of this FracTracker web page, which appears to have gone live earlier in the day:

A lot of the pipeline maps I see nowadays are highly generalized schematics, and I think there are legitimate reasons for that:  After 9/11, industry and the regulatory establishment made a concerted effort to withdraw detailed mapping of sensitive potential targets, such as what you appear to be showing here.

I can't say for sure whether your maps are intended to be truly accurate at an on-the-ground scale, but — if so — have you considered, before posting, that there might be an inherent conflict between the public's right to know, and the public's interest in discouraging vandals or worse from finding weak points at which to attack these things?

For what it's worth, here's what Wikipedia (currently) says on this topic (beneath a similar U.S. pipeline map which doesn't show much detail when enlarged):  "Many Americans have no idea where or whether a natural gas pipeline runs under their home or office, and since 9/11, for national security purposes, detailed maps of gas pipelines are not available to the general public" (emphasis mine).

I hadn't heard that there had been any relaxation in these guidelines (or whatever they are), but it looks to me as though you've taken matters into your own hands.  Beforehand, I think these questions are worth thinking about.
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Some further thoughts:

Pro-drilling commenters such as myself have grown accustomed to having their point of view "moderated" out of anti-drilling platforms — which is a polite way of saying we've gotten way too used to being alarmingly censored by the left.  This is especially true within the fracking debates
, which have gotten very over-heated.  We'll still have to wait'n'see what happens with my comment, which I intentionally drafted as politely as I could muster.  But let me just say, generally, that I don't cotton much to that kind of fanatical isolationism and closed-mindedness, whether it's coming out of the far right (where I previously considered it to be a natural reflex), or out of the far left (where I previously preferred to believe there were a lot of big fans of free speech).  It might be a little late in life for me to be finally learning this, but it turns out that George Orwell was correct to warn about the even-handed nature of the tendency toward Thought Police.

As somebody who's very much interested in the economic and environmental impact of the fossil fuels business, especially in New York, I have often wanted to know and report much more geographic detail about the existing and proposed sprawl of various pipelines and associated infrastructure. 

[Long digression here, and I'm sorry about that, but I think it's worth pointing out:  In New York State — due to the now-kindergarten-aged shale gas drill ban — there has been way more for me to talk about on this blog within the realm of midstream activity, rather than upstream.  For instance, Bluestone, I've written about at least once, twice, three, four times — always seeking with mixed results to goad the Binghamton Press into doing its job.  TGP's short-lived predecessor to Constitution, pro-drilling landowners had the scoop on that as broadcast hereConstitution, during the early days, pro-drilling landowners and this blog were the primary source for details and first-draft maps here, and here, and hereEmKey's mid-state proposal — which is not going anywhere anytime soon, so long as NY's frack ban continues — I've been pretty much alone in detailingMillennium South-North (and now South-North-But-Shortened), I've endeavored to get the word out here and hereIroquois' proposal to export natgas to Canada — for some reason, no one seems to think that's a story.  The recent plan to double what was originally called "Laser Gathering" in Windsor, I had it here, again seeking to coax the Binghamton Press into doing its job, which it eventually did.]

[More digression, and, again, I apologize:  Though it could be relatively easily done, no scribe, to my knowledge, has yet tried to pull together all this new activity — along with much additional inconvenient stuff, such as the Cornell University and Dunkirk coal-to-natgas power plant conversions; the anti-frack Village of Hamilton voting overwhelmingly to form a non-profit municipal natgas utility; Leatherstocking Gas winning franchises for very local natgas service in Windsor and other small towns nearby; NY's pending reversal on LNG as a cheaper and cleaner transportation fuel; the bipartisan consumer-level economic and environmental benefits of NYC's ongoing switch from fuel oil to natgas for building heat, including Yoko Ono's digs at the Dakota; Millennium upgrading compressors on downstate-bound pipelines; Spectra and others enlarging the capacity of their entry into Greater NYC; and even crude oil trains now wanting a barge transfer station in Albany — and used this full, seemingly disconnected roster of current news to illustrate The Big PictureAll of this has been triggered by fracking!  In fact, like it or not, there has been a technological revolution in domestic fossil fuels that's already occurred, far outside the power of any state or federal governmental program to either make it happen, or to clamp it down.  And it's already affecting New York State in many good, bad, or traded-off ways — no matter what Gov. Cuomo ever decides on the in-state high-volume fracking question.]

Anyway, so far as pipelines in New York go, I have been admittedly frustrated by the post-9/11 clampdown on that kind of "general public" information.  And FracTracker's map looks like a decent answer to my wants and desires.  But, sometimes, I think, you know, you gotta be careful what you wish for.

It's true that a determined vandal, or a determined terrorist — similar to a determined burglar — would be able to find a place along the U.S. pipeline system to cause mayhem, regardless of official or voluntary attempts to withdraw sensitive geographic data from the general public's view.  But I don't think FracTracker's map helps matters much.  If anything, I don't think these guys — or their well-heeled anti-frack funders such as Heinz Endowments, Park Foundation, William Penn Foundation — are even thinking anymore.  Their cause is trumping all.

I'm just one person.  But I'm hoping that just talking about this might lead whoever's in charge of this sort of thing to quickly persuade FracTracker to make obsolete my links to their map.

1 comment:

Matt Kelso said...


Thank you for your comments and interest in our site. The pipeline data mapped that you mention here contain estimated locations, that were provided upon request from the Energy Information Administration.

The FracTracker Alliance takes national security issues seriously, and we would not release data of this sort that we were not cleared to publish. That said, there are also concerns with not knowing where the pipelines are located. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 146 fatalities and 505 injuries from significant pipeline incidents between 1993 and 2012 caused by excavation events, where more accurate information on pipeline locations could have potentially saved lives.

Thank you,

Matt Kelso
Manager of Data and Technology
FracTracker Alliance