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Oily Situation 

The black gold running through local pipelines gains honors as Substance of the Year.

The duty of a columnist at this time of year is making lists and rating things, but 2003 was not my favorite year, and I don't want to chirp on about it any more than you do.

There's no denying, though, that we're living in fast and interesting times. Among all the players and events of the year, one thing consistently stands out (or oozes under and around): oil. Just as The Beverly Hillbillies long ago taught us, "black gold, Texas T" can and will change everything. I propose that since humans matter less and less, we skip the personalities and make petroleum Substance of the Year for 2003.

It works both globally and locally. We're at war over bubblin' crude in Iraq, plain and simple. Even the war profiteering is about gas--witness Halliburton's overcharging so much for Kuwaiti gasoline that even the Pentagon noticed.

The oil theme continues here on the saguaro-decked home front, where gasoline--petroleum's refined blond daughter--is at the heart of my personal pick for story of the year. The July 30 break in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners' 48-year-old gasoline pipeline on the surprise-prone westside has ripened into a classic Tucson stink, but with a piquant new whiff of volatile fumes. The eruption of a 17,000-gallon toxic geyser in the middle of a subdivision was just the beginning.

First word from the mayor, City Council and Tucson Water was that the spew posed no danger to the public, that there was no threat to the aquifer, and that we could all relax. Whew. These are people we trust. Especially Tucson Water.

Kinder Morgan got the leak stopped eventually, and began replacing the old 8-inch line with a 12-inch one, albeit at a pace that irritated Gov. Janet Napolitano and every other exasperated resident of Phoenix, which the line largely supplies. (Interestingly, the new pipeline will carry more than twice as much as the old one: Plug the numbers into 'r2 if you don't believe me.) But in good time, we all had gas again, and lines and prices began to go down, although not before we all learned that Arizona has no law against price-gouging.

Back to the spill. Neighbors who hadn't realized they'd been living next to a pipeline capable of spraying flammable liquids 50 feet into the air were understandably disturbed by the golden shower and suggested that line be moved. At first, the city stuck to its standard issue public-reassurance routine--"Fuel leaks? Just like Mad Cow disease! 100 percent under control!" But then it turned out that three wells were in fact contaminated--the dire word "plume" was mentioned--and the natives once again became agitated.

At this point, it became vital to local officials that they didn't look so much like Kinder Morgan's best friends, and so they began talks with the state EPA and Attorney General's Office about seeking some kind of restitution from the company. Ha. The Arizona Corporation Commission has been after Kinder Morgan for years for maintenance and safety violations on the very pipeline that blew and has always come up empty: A $50,000 fine and demand for corrective actions sought by the ACC in 2001 were just blocked by federal officials in October. Backstory: Richard Kinder is a former president of Enron and a longtime friend and monetary supporter of George W. Bush and his daddy 'afore him. You might as well try to regulate a weather system.

At last word, the City Council has courageously decided to consider talking to Kinder Morgan about moving the pipeline in 2006, when the company's contract with the city is up. And the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to take the subject up in 2014, when its agreement expires. Kinder Morgan, in turn, has advised everyone that it will seek compensation if and when it has to move. That's a promise you can believe.

In one last, pitiful try at putting public health and private property values before hydrocarbon chains, local activists and ACC Chairman Mark Spitzer suggested that there should be restrictions on building near pipelines, or at least rules about telling homebuyers that they're there. Word came down mid-December: The state Department of Real Estate will now be asking--not requiring--developers to disclose whether new houses are "in proximity" to petroleum pipelines --no definition of "in proximity" being given.

The calendar may say 2004, but it's the same old year in Southern Arizona.

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