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The tragic conflagration caused by a leaking natural gas pipeline in East Godavaridistrict of Andhra Pradesh represents a new type of peril before India. Leapingflames from a pipeline passing through a village conveying gas from a fieldoperated by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to a private-sector power plantswept through huts, houses and trees, leaving a trail of death and destructionin a radius of more than 500 metres. It was the deadliest accident in India’senergy sector since August 2013, when 28 people were killed in a fireat Hindustan Petroleum Corporation’s refinery at Visakhapatnam in the same State. Thisis the first incident of such a scale for the 30-year-old GAIL, a Maharatnacompany and by far India’s largest pipeline operator. It currently has anetwork of pipelines running to a length of 8,000 km, a figure that is set torise to 14,000 km. Every inch of pipeline carrying the highly flammablematerial poses risks; habitations coming up, sometimes unauthorisedly, alongpipeline routes are also a matter of concern.

India’snatural gas scenario is undergoing rapid changes and gas, considered a “newage” fuel and the cleanest among fossil fuels, is poised to occupy asignificant share in the diversified energy mix. The problem lies in safelytransporting the resource through pipelines. Pipeline systems for oil have along history in India, while those for gas are relatively new. The mechanismstend to age and deteriorate. The situation calls for a comprehensive, ongoingsystem of checks and oversight along routes operated by all the players in thefield, and round-the-clock monitoring employing advanced technology inquick-response mode. Since GAIL has confirmed that villagers in the area hadthe previous evening complained of the smell of gas, negligence and failure torespond to danger signals were clearly involved. The government should quicklyfollow up on the pending proposal for a statutory safety regulator for the oiland gas sector. India needs to expand its gas grids. Unless safety concernsamong the public over transporting gas and the operations of power plants areaddressed with a sense of urgency, the Union government’s efforts to acceleratemajor energy and infrastructure projects may face delays. For instance,opposition by the Tamil Nadu government has stalled a key section of GAIL’sambitious Kochi-Bangalore-Mangalore pipeline project. Tamil Nadu, through whicha section of the pipeline was to pass, says it would affect the livelihood ofabout 5,500 small farmers and wants the line laid along highways, and notfarmlands. There may well be lessons to be drawn from the latest accident whileseeking to resolve this issue.

 

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