By Scott Finley
Approximately 431,000 miles of known energy transfer pipelines run underground in Texas, and the potential for damage to these lines during excavations and construction is massive.
The Texas Railroad Commission fines businesses and individuals who damage underground pipelines. Even just scraping a pipeline can levy a fine between $150 and $150,000. Every energy CEO in Texas is aware that oil and gas wasted through broken pipelines is not only unprofitable, but potentially deadly.
The first line of defense in protecting this underground network is a largely unknown service: the 811 system. By placing a free call to 811, anyone can have their buried lines marked or flagged at no cost prior to any excavation work.
The bulk of 811 calls in Texas are handled by Texas811, a non-profit organization and the world’s largest 811notification center. Operators at Texas811 answered more than 2.75 million underground locate requests in 2015 and sent out over 12 million notices of intent to excavate to utilities and municipalities. However, the service remains almost completely unknown outside of a subset of dedicated contractors and excavators, despite a state law that requires a call to 811 for line locating before digging deeper than 16 inches.
Texas811 knows the Texas energy industry and its particular needs. Approximately 300 of Texas811’s nearly 1,600 members are firmly grounded in the oil and gas industry, and the Texas811 board of directors is also represented by oil and gas. Atmos Energy, Kinder Morgan and Texas Gas Service are all members of the board that governs this $16 million a year non-profit.
Despite the nearly three million incoming calls to Texas811 in 2015 for locates, there were over 8,700 incidents of pipeline damage in Texas. Twenty-six percent of those damages were made because no one notified 811, and 72 percent were caused by a contractor. However, when a call to 811 was made prior to excavation, the number fell to 3.19 damages per 1,000 called-in locates, underscoring the urgent need for oil and gas operators and contractors to make a call to 811.
“A tremendous amount of out-of-state contractors are coming into Texas,” says Texas811 President Mike Losawyer. “Some of these contractors are unfamiliar with Texas laws and procedures so there has been a learning curve getting these excavators up to speed.”
Losawyer adds that it’s not just oil and gas lines that are affected by digging before 811 has located lines–telecommunications, electrical, communications, water and sewage lines are also targets.
The folks at Texas811 are serious about safety. Texas811 has partnered with Enertech for mock line strikes and pipeline response training. Losawyer hopes to make 811 a number and a service that Texans know by heart. Through bilingual PSAs and outreach programs, Texas811 is working to get the word out about the important, free service the company provides. Losawyer urges that no job is too small for a call to 811—including home fence and mailbox installations.
“A gas or oil line strike is not only hazardous to the environment, but also potentially life threatening,” Losawyer says.
Texans can call 811 any time of the day or night, to request a line locate. Texas811 also has an app and a website, Texas811.org, offering a simple, hands-on way to make use of this free service.
Scott Finley is a manager with Texas811 and is based in Dallas.