U.S. Pipeline Safety: Miles of Traveling Gas Beneath Our Feet

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.[1] 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.

Map of the United States Natural Gas Pipeline Network

Currently, the U.S. has more than 200 natural gas pipeline systems covering over 300,000 miles.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[5] 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.[5] 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.


[1] http://www.naturalgas.org/overview/uses.asp

[2] http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/natural_gas/analysis_publications/ngpipeline/index.html

[3] http://www.ingaa.org/Foundation/Foundation-Reports/Studies/14904/14889.aspx

[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/29/column-kemp-us-pipelines-idUSL5N0AYGLT20130129

[5] http://www.energybiz.com/article/13/01/pipeline-eruptions-causing-fiery-debate-over-safety

[6] http://www.naturalgas.org/naturalgas/transport.asp

[7] http://www.forbes.com/sites/kensilverstein/2013/01/29/pipeline-explosion-rattles-natural-gas-industry/?ss=business%3Aenergy



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3 responses to “U.S. Pipeline Safety: Miles of Traveling Gas Beneath Our Feet

  1. hirsch2013

    Thanks for posting a thoughtful and informative entry on the challenges with natural gas distribution and its aging infrastructure in the U.S. As I read it, I recalled the tragedy in San Bruno, California when a natural gas pipe explosion in September 2010 killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. Much like the disaster in West Virginia, it took authorities a long time (between 60 to 90 minutes) to turn the gas off. The explosion happened only two miles from the San Francisco International Airport.
    I was living in San Francisco at the time and the story made headlines for weeks as discussion around how it happened and who was to blame unfolded through the investigation. Not surprisingly, nearby pipelines were already flagged for replacement due aging infrastructure with “unacceptably high” likelihood of failure. So why did this disaster have to happen?
    After everything I’ve read on the subject, it seems to me that these travesties are absolutely preventable with proper testing and maintenance. Public safety should always be the gas companies’ number one priority such that incidents like the one in San Bruno or Sissonville never happen again. I support tighter regulations if it means preventing similar tragedies in the future.

  2. tthuyhuynh

    Thank you for your posting on pipeline infrastructure. This topic is intriguing not just about the safety but due to the fact that along with the amount of infrastructure in place and more coming, high demand on one day might still be a problem. It will be interesting to see how certain regulations in place for safety will either inhibit or provide better services on tight time periods. An example of high demand in one day is the cold weather event on February 2, 2011 when there were gas curtailments that affected some of the generators in the southwest. The report linked is the entire report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and their analysis on the event. Page 9 and 10 of the report specfically discuss the issues observed in the natural gas sector and the production losses. They state that there were primarily three things that caused production loss: freeze conditions, icy roads, and rolling electric blackouts or customer curtailments. Perhaps better safety on the pipelines would have prevented some of the production loss.

  3. khines45

    It’s interesting that the need for additional capacity and the safety policy issues you mention are accompanied by growing calls for streamlining the permitting process. I think many feel that these issues run counter to each other, but they need not.
    As you pointed out, companies have an interest in keeping their pipelines safe and are utilizing a number of precautions to ensure that. Streamlining the permitting process could give companies the ability to move forward with projects sooner and include new safety/technological features in that build out. That could in turn provide additional capital (from increased sales) as well as economies of scale for retrofitting existing infrastructure.

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