Thousands of miles of pipelines that collect oil and gas released through hydraulic fracturing are not regulated by the federal government, meaning they are not regularly inspected for leaks or corrosion, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office report.
Government auditors are calling for the federal government to step up oversight to ensure the pipelines are running safely, but industry experts say many pipeline operators take their own steps to ensure pipeline safety.
In Ohio, lawmakers are taking a serious look at the issue, according to state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens.
"The regulation of the gathering lines is addressed in the energy portion of the budget corrections bill that is moving forward," she said. "I do think it's important we take into consideration safety measures with all of these pipelines, particularly in light of the experience we had last year in Morgan County."
Four structures were destroyed in Homer Township in November when a Tennessee Gas Pipeline exploded. The State Fire Marshal's office and the Morgan County Sheriff's Office have said the explosion was the result of the ignition of natural gas, followed by a physical failure of the line. They could not determine the exact source of ignition, but believe a spark from debris, static electricity or nearby power transformers likely ignited the natural gas.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have said the agency's investigation won't wrap up for at least 20 months.
The expansion of hydraulic fracturing - also known as fracking - promises staggering yields, and drilling also comes with promises of job creation and economic opportunities. The process involves shattering rock thousands of feet underground with a combination of water, sand and chemicals.
Private companies have put in hundreds of small gathering pipelines in recent years to collect the oil and gas freed through fracking. Nationwide, about 240,000 miles of gathering pipelines ferry the fuels to processing facilities and larger pipelines in top energy-producing states.
The report issued by the Government Accountability Office indicates most of them are not regulated by the PHMSA, meaning they're not regularly inspected for leaks or corrosion.
But Lindsay Sander, a pipeline safety consultant with MarkWest Energy Partners, said folks should not be alarmed by that because many operators take steps to ensure the safety of their lines.
"Operators take all kinds of safety steps from the very time the pipeline is constructed through the time it becomes operational and continue to ensure the integrity of those systems," Sander said. "Just because the federal government doesn't oversee it doesn't mean the operator doesn't already do it."
MarkWest Energy Partners, based in Denver, Colo., gathers and transports natural gas and crude oil for customers like Gulfport Energy Corporation.
The company recently announced it will build new gathering pipelines for Utica wells in Harrison, Guernsey and Belmont Counties in Ohio. It could have pipelines in Washington County in the future if one of the companies it serves begins drilling in the county.
"Companies like MarkWest and the industry in general spend millions if not billions to transport America's energy resources," Sander said. "It's an investment, so they have an interest in protecting that investment."
An official with a company that has a line running through Marietta says the line is inspected for corrosion and leaks, among other things.
"In Ohio we have one that runs from Marietta to Killbuck, which is west of Canton," said Bob Gerst, state manager for the Ohio Oil Gathering Corporation. "We do a corrosion check every five years."
Gerst added that the line is checked for leaks hourly and the pressure and flow are monitored at all times. He said crude oil collected in the line is transported to the river, where it is loaded on barges.
Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he's confident lines running through the area are safe, especially those of the Ohio Oil Gathering Corporation.
"My sense is they're the most well known locally," he said. "I feel extremely confident in Ohio Oil Gathering and what they do and feel very confident the right thing is being done in this area."
Still, many wonder why the federal government isn't providing more oversight, or the state government hasn't stepped in, including Muskingum Township resident Jann Adams, a member of the local Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group.
"It amazes me they aren't regulated, that there aren't some kind of rules about that," she said.
The Associated Press contributed.