The increase in domestic production of natural gas is widely considered to be an avenue for energy independence in the United States. Advances in drilling and hydraulic fracturing have allowed for more efficient access to the country’s wealth of shale gas. Natural gas is an abundant and versatile energy source. Much of the nation’s supply is split evenly between the Electric, Residential and Industrial sectors. But as our production and reliance on natural gas continues to expand, so must the infrastructure in which we transport the gas. This pressing need to build more pipes has resulted in public scrutiny of pipeline safety, especially in light of past small-scale disasters for people and property.
Currently, the U.S. has more than 200 natural gas pipeline systems covering over 300,000 miles. The transportation map illustrates a vast and intricate network of pipelines similar to the country’s interstate highways. Approximately half of these pipelines were installed before 1970 and as much as 62,000 miles of new pipeline may be required over the next 25 years, according to a report from the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. However, events such as the one in Sissonville, WV where a natural gas pipeline burst and four homes were destroyed have resulted in trepidation about pipeline infrastructure expansion, as well as an increased demand in improved safety regulations for the country’s pipeline system. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia expressed national sentiment succinctly: “We have miles and miles of pipeline beneath our feet. Responding to an accident quickly and efficiently is absolutely essential to keeping the public safe.”
Companies presently engage in many safety precautions for their pipelines, including leak detection, preventative maintenance, gas sampling and the use of sophisticated robotic devices called “smart pigs”, which are sent down pipelines to assess the conditions of the pipe interior. Smart pigs can test pipe thickness, check for signs of corrosion, detect minute leaks and perform other tasks that may identify safety risks to the public. But despite these precautions and the fact that incidents involving death or major injury have fallen by 10 percent in the past three years, notable events still demonstrate a need for tighter regulations. When the pipe burst in Sissonville, it took the energy company over an hour to manually shut down the line. This slow response time has ignited a push to replace manually operated valves with automated ones. These valves allow companies to close a line centrally in a much shorter period of time, potentially preventing fires and pollution. However, the cost of automated valves (including parts and installation) is high, ranging from $35,000 to $500,000. Many of these problems have no easy or clear answers. What is abundantly clear in all of this is that the policy issues for developing pipeline infrastructure alongside necessary safety regulations will only increase as we continue to expand domestic production and consumption of natural gas.