Pipeline Data Offer Story Leads

October 2, 2019

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A government database offers extensive, if incomplete, information on pipeline location, incidents and enforcement. Above, a rusty gas pipeline sign in Yavapai, Ariz. Photo: W Lauzon, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Reporter’s Toolbox: Pipeline Data Offer Story Leads

By Joseph A. Davis

Pipeline explosions and spills kill people, harm natural resources and reveal government dysfunction. 

But environmental journalists can find and develop pipeline stories important to their communities through a wealth of available data.


Where the data comes from

It’s a big subject, but some of the best data is at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Knowing where the pipelines are is the first step. PHMSA maintains the National Pipeline Mapping System, or NPMS, which can help some if you understand its limitations. The good news is that it is map-based, so you can find what’s going on near you. Or at least some of it.

After 9/11, the U.S. government hid or hobbled a wide swath of data resources it thought could be useful to terrorists. That included the NPMS


Data is still sometimes incomplete and 

of poor accuracy. So the cardinal rule of data journalism 

still applies: Check and ground-truth everything.


Today, years later, the system is a bit more useable. But data is still sometimes incomplete and of poor accuracy. So the cardinal rule of data journalism still applies: Check and ground-truth everything.

The public (and thus journalists) only have access to a limited subset of the data. And you can only see it in county-by-county gulps. But these can be stitched together.


How to use the data smartly

The public viewer for the NPMS can be accessed here. Explore. You can see the general location of petroleum, natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines. It only shows major lines, not local collection and distribution lines.

The NPMS viewer doesn’t really identify the names and operators of the lines. But you can find that by searching the database from another interface here. It even gives you phone numbers.

If you are pursuing a more extensive project, you can find more and better pipeline geographic data from commercial firms like PennWell MAPSearch. It costs, but it might not break your budget.

PHMSA also maintains other data that journalists can use. One example is “incident” data, which can shed some light on the safety record of a line or operator. Find an overview and a key access point for raw data here.

PHMSA also offers some enforcement data, which is useful to the extent that PHMSA actually does meaningful enforcement. Search this general portal to PHMSA enforcement data. The emphasis is on aggregated summaries of data, but you can learn more by drilling down via particular query portals. For example, you can search for data on individual enforcement actions for individual operators here.

PHMSA’s dataset can yield many insights into the broad pipeline safety picture nationwide. ProPublica did an exemplary presentation of these data in 2012.


Additional resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 35. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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