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destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Unnatural Disasters

Guest blog by Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group

Roughly half of the homes in America use gas for providing heat, hot water or powering appliances. If you use gas in your home, you know that leaks are bad – they waste money, they pollute the air, and, if exposed to a spark, they could spell disaster.

Our homes, however, are only the end point of a vast production and transportation system that brings gas through a network of pipelines all the way from the wellhead to our kitchens. There are opportunities for wasteful and often dangerous leaks all along the way – leaks that threaten the public’s health and safety and contribute to climate change.

How frequent are gas leaks?

Between January 2010 and November 2018, there were a reported 1,888 incidents that involved a serious injury, fatality or major financial loss related to gas leaks in the production, transmission and distribution system, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents caused 86 deaths, 487 injuries and over $1 billion in costs.

When gas lines leak, rupture, or are otherwise damaged, the gas released can explode, sometimes right in our own backyards. Roughly one in seven of the incidents referenced above – 260 in total – involved an explosion.

In September 2018, for example, a series of explosions in three Massachusetts communities caused one death, numerous injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. And there are many more stories like it from communities across the U.S. From the 2010 pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes to the 2014 disaster in New York City that destroyed two five-story buildings and killed eight people, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by gas.

The financial and environmental costs

Gas leaks are also a sheer waste of resources. While some gas is released deliberately in the gas production process, large amounts are released unintentionally due to malfunctioning equipment, corrosion and natural causes like flooding. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 123,692 million cubic feet of gas were lost in 2017 alone, enough to power over 1 million homes for an entire year. That amount is likely an underestimate. On top of the major leaks reported to the government agency in charge of pipeline safety, many of our cities’ aging gas systems are riddled with smaller leaks, making it tricky to quantify just how much gas is lost from leaks in our nation’s gas system.

Leaks also threaten the stability of our climate because they release large amounts of methane, the main component of gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Gas is not the “cleaner” alternative to coal that the industry often makes it out to be. The amount of methane released during production and distribution is enough to reduce or even negate its greenhouse gas advantage over coal. The total estimated methane emissions from U.S. gas systems have roughly the same global warming impact over a 20-year period as all the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants in 2015 – and methane emissions are likely higher than this amount, which is self-reported by the industry.

In most states, there is no strong incentive for gas companies to reduce the amount of leaked gas because they can still charge customers for it through “purchased gas adjustment clauses.” These costs to consumers are far from trivial. Between 2001 and 2011, Americans paid at least $20 billion for gas that never made it to their homes.

These and other dangers of gas leaks are described in a recent fact sheet by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. At a time when climate change is focusing attention on our energy system, it is critical that communities understand the full range of problems with gas – including the ever-present risk of leaks in the extensive network of infrastructure that brings gas from the well to our homes.

The alternative

We should not be using a fuel that endangers the public’s safety and threatens the stability of our climate. Luckily, we don’t have to. Switching to electric home heating and hot water systems and appliances powered by renewable energy would allow us to move toward eliminating carbon emissions from homes. Electric heat pumps are twice as efficient as gas systems in providing heat and hot water, making them a viable and commonsense replacement. Similarly, as the cost of wind and solar keep falling, they will continue to undercut gas prices in many regions.

It’s time to move beyond gas and create a cleaner, safer energy system.

By Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank part of The Public Interest Network. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

Map of pipeline incidents across the US

Pipeline Incidents Continue to Impact Residents

Pipelines play a major role in the oil and gas extraction industry, allowing for the transport of hydrocarbons from well sites to a variety of infrastructure, including processing plants, petrochemical facilities, power generation plants, and ultimately consumers. There are more than 2.7 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, or more than 11 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

With all of this infrastructure in place, pipelines are inevitably routed close to homes, schools, and other culturally or ecologically important locations. But how safe are pipelines, really? While they are typically buried underground and out of sight, many residents are concerned about the constant passage of volatile materials through these pipes in close proximity to these areas, with persistent but often unstated possibility that something might go wrong some day.

Safety talking points

In an attempt to assuage these fears, industry representatives and regulators tend to throw around variants of the word “safe” quite a bit:

Pipelines are the safest and most reliable means of transporting the nation’s energy products.
— Keith Coyle, Marcellus Shale Coalition

Although pipelines exist in all fifty states, most of us are unaware that this vast network even exists. This is due to the strong safety record of pipelines and the fact that most of them are located underground. Installing pipelines underground protects them from damage and helps protect our communities as well.
— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country.
Pipeline 101

Knowing how important pipelines are to everyday living is a big reason why we as pipeline operators strive to keep them safe. Pipelines themselves are one of the safest ways to transport energy with a barrel of crude oil or petroleum product reaching its destination safely by pipeline 99.999% of the time.
American Petroleum Institute

But are pipelines really safe?

Given these talking points, the general public can be excused for being under the impression that pipelines are no big deal. However, PHMSA keeps records on pipeline incidents in the US, and the cumulative impact of these events is staggering. These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers),
  2. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets), and
  3. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).

Below in Table 1 is a summary of pipeline incident data from 2010 through mid-November of this year. Of note: Some details from recent events are still pending, and are therefore not yet reflected in these reports.

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018

Report Incidents Injuries Fatalities Evacuees Fires Explosions Damages ($)
Gas Distribution 934 473 92 18,467 576 226 381,705,567
Gas Transmission & Gathering 1,069 99 24 8,614 121 51 1,107,988,837
Hazardous Liquids 3,509 24 10 2,471 111 14 2,606,014,109
Totals 5,512 596 126 29,552 808 291 4,095,708,513

Based on this data, on average each day in the US 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported (a number in line with our previous analyses), requiring 9 people to be evacuated, and causing almost $1.3 million in property damage. A pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents result in an injury every 5 days, on average, and a fatality every 26 days.

Data shortcomings

While the PHMSA datasets are extremely thorough, they do have some limitations. Unfortunately, in some cases, these limitations tend to minimize our understanding of the true impacts. A notable recent example is a series of explosions and fires on September 13, 2018 in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. Cumulatively, these incidents resulted in the death of a young man and the injuries to 25 other people. There were 60-80 structure fires, according to early reports, as gas distribution lines became over-pressurized.

The preliminary PHMSA report lists all of these Massachusetts fires as a single event, so it is counted as one fire and one explosion in Table 1. As of the November 14 download of the data, property damage has not been calculated, and is listed as $0. The number of evacuees in the report also stands at zero. This serves as a reminder that analysis of the oil and gas industry can only be as good as the available data, and relying on operators to accurately self-report the full extent of the impacts is a somewhat dubious practice.



View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work
This map shows pipeline incidents in the US from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018. Source: PHMSA. One record without coordinates was discarded, and 10 records had missing decimal points or negative (-) signs added to the longitude values. A few obvious errors remain, such as a 2012 incident near Winnipeg that should be in Texas, but we are not in a position to guess at the correct latitude and longitude values for each of the 5,512 incidents.

Another recent incident occurred in Center Township, a small community in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near Aliquippa on September 10, 2018. According to the PHMSA Gas Transmission & Gathering report, this incident on the brand new Revolution gathering line caused over $7 million in damage, destroying a house and multiple vehicles, and required 49 people to evacuate. The incident was indicated as a fire, but not an explosion. However, reporting by local media station WPXI quoted this description from a neighbor:

A major explosion, I thought it was a plane crash honestly. My wife and I jumped out of bed and it was just like a light. It looked like daylight. It was a ball of flame like I’ve never seen before.

From the standpoint of the data, this error is not particularly egregious. On the other hand, it does serve to falsely represent the overall safety of the system, at least if we consider explosions to be more hazardous than fires.

Big picture findings

Comparing the three reports against one another, we can see that the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%) are caused by hazardous liquids pipelines, even though the liquids account for less than 8% of the total mileage of the network. In all of the other categories, however, gas distribution lines account for more than half of the cumulative damage, including injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%). This is perhaps due to the vast network (more than 2.2 million miles) of gas distribution mains and service lines, as well as their nature of taking these hazardous products directly into populated areas. Comparatively, transmission and hazardous liquids lines ostensibly attempt to avoid those locations.

Is the age of the pipeline a factor in incidents?

Among the available attributes in the incident datasets is a field indicating the year the pipeline was installed. While this data point is not always completed, there is enough of a sample size to look for trends in the data. We determined the age of the pipe by subtracting the year the pipe was installed from the year of the incident, eliminating nonsensical values that were created when the pipeline age was not provided. In the following section, we will look at two tables for each of the three reports. The first table shows the cause of the failure compared to the average age, and the second breaks down results by the content that the pipe was carrying. We’ll also include a histogram of the pipe age, so we can get a sense of how representative the average age actually is within the sample.

A. Gas distribution

Each table shows some fluctuation in the average age of pipeline incidents depending on other variables, although the variation in the product contained in the pipe (Table 3) are minor, and may be due to relatively small sample sizes in some of the categories. When examining the nature of the failure in relation to the age of the pipe (Table 2), it does make sense that incidents involving corrosion would be more likely to afflict older pipelines, (although again, the number of incidents in this category is relatively small). On average, distribution pipeline incidents occur on pipes that are 33 years old.

When we look at the histogram (Figure 1) for the overall distribution of the age of the pipeline, we see that those in the first bin, representing routes under 10 years of age, are actually the most frequent. In fact, the overall trend, excepting those in the 40 t0 50 year old bin, is that the older the pipeline, the fewer the number of incidents. This may reflect the massive scale of pipeline construction in recent decades, or perhaps pipeline safety protocol has regressed over time.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 1. Age of pipeline histogram for gas distribution line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

B. Gas Transmission & Gathering

Transmission & Gathering line incidents occur on pipelines routes that are, on average, five years older than their distribution counterparts. Corrosion, natural force damage, and material failures on pipes and welds occur on pipelines with an average age above the overall mean, while excavation and “other outside force” incidents tend to occur on newer pipes (Table 4). The latter category would include things like being struck by vehicles, damaged in wildfires, or vandalism. The contents of the pipe does not seem to have any significant correlation with the age of the pipe when we take sample size into consideration (Table 5).

The histogram (Figure 2) for the age of pipes on transmission & gathering line incidents below shows a more normal distribution, with the noticeable exception of the first bin (0 to 10 years old) ranking second in frequency to the fifth bin (40 to 50 years old).

It is worth mentioning that, “PHMSA estimates that only about 5% of gas gathering pipelines are currently subject to PHMSA pipeline safety regulations.” My correspondence with the agency verified that the remainder is not factored into their pipeline mileage or incident reports in any fashion. Therefore, we should not consider the PHMSA data to completely represent the extent of the gathering line network or incidents that occur on those routes.

Pipeline incidents chart

Figure 2. Age of pipeline histogram for transmission & gathering line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

C. Hazardous Liquids

The average incident on hazardous liquid lines occurs on pipelines that are 27 years old, which is 6 years younger than for distribution incidents, and 11 years younger than their transmission & gathering counterparts. This appears to be heavily skewed by the equipment failure and incorrect operation categories, both of which occur on pipes averaging 15 years old, and both with substantial numbers of incidents. On the other hand, excavation damage, corrosion, and material/weld failures tend to occur on pipes that are at least 40 years old (Table 6).

In terms of content, pipelines carrying carbon dioxide happen on pipes that average just 11 years old, although there are not enough of these incidents to account for the overall departure from the other two datasets (Table 7).

The overall shape of the histogram (Figure 3) is similar to that of transmission & gathering line incidents, except that the first bin (0 to 10 years old) is by far the most frequent, with more than 3 and a half times as many incidents as the next closest bin (4o to 50 years old). Operators of new hazardous liquid routes are failing at an alarming rate. In descending order, these incidents are blamed on equipment failure (61%), incorrect operation (21%), and corrosion (7%), followed by smaller amounts in other categories. The data indicate that pipelines installed in previous decades were not subject to this degree of failure.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 3. Age of pipeline histogram for hazardous liquid line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

Conclusions

When evaluating quotes, like those listed above, that portray pipelines as a safe way of transporting hydrocarbons, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are saying.

Are pipelines the safest way of transporting our nation’s energy products? This presupposes that our energy must be met with liquid or gaseous fossil fuels. Certainly, crude shipments by rail and other modes of transport are also concerning, but movements of solar panels and wind turbines are far less risky.

Does the industry have the “strong safety record” that PHMSA proclaims? Here, we have to grapple with the fact that the word “safety” is inherently subjective, and the agency’s own data could certainly argue that the industry is falling short of reasonable safety benchmarks.

And what about the claim that barrels of oil or petroleum products reach their destination “99.999% of the time? First, it’s worth noting that this claim excludes gas pipelines, which account for 92% of the pipelines, even before considering that PHMSA only has records on about 5% of gas gathering lines in their pipeline mileage calculations. But more to the point, while a 99.999% success rate sounds fantastic, in this context, it isn’t good enough, as this means that one barrel in every 100,000 will spill.

For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline has a daily capacity of 470,000 barrels per day (bpd). In an average year, we can expect 1,715 barrels (72,030 gallons) to fail to reach its destination, and indeed, there are numerous spills reported in the course of routine operation on the route. The 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline leaked 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) late last year in South Dakota, or what we might expect from four and a half years of normal operation, given the o.001% failure rate. In all, PHMSA’s hazardous liquid report lists 712,763 barrels (29.9 million gallons) were unintentionally released, while an additional 328,074 barrels (13.8 million gallons) were intentionally released in this time period. Of this, 284,887 barrels (12 million gallons) were recovered, meaning 755,950 barrels (31.7 million gallons) were not.

Beyond that, we must wonder whether the recent spate of pipeline incidents in new routes is a trend that can be corrected. Between the three reports, 1,283 out of the 3,853 (32%) incidents occurred in pipelines that were 10 years old or younger (where the year the pipeline’s age is known). A large number of these incidents are unforced errors, due to poor quality equipment or operator error.

One wonders why regulators are allowing such shoddy workmanship to repeatedly occur on their watch.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

Clearing land for shale gas pipeline in PA

Resistance Mounts to Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline Across MA and NH

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator

As the pressure to move domestic natural gas to market from sources in Pennsylvania and beyond, residents in Massachusetts have been learning about a planned project that would cross the northern portion of the state.

Gas infrastructure build-out on the radar

The proposed Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline Expansion, known as the “Berkshire Pipeline,” or more recently as “Northeast Energy Direct,” would link existing pipeline infrastructure near the New York-Massachusetts border and Dracut, MA, north of Boston. TX-based Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. says that the 250-mile-long, 36-inch diameter pipeline construction would temporarily create about 3000 jobs, and deliver upwards of 2.2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas to the northeastern United States. Along the course of the proposed pipeline, 50 miles of the run would use existing Tennessee Gas Pipeline rights-of-way. Nevertheless, 129 miles of the new pipeline would be located in “greenfield” areas: locations that had previously not seen disruption by pipeline infrastructure. If approved, construction would begin in April 2017, with a targeted completion date of November 2018.

In addition to the main pipeline, the project would also include meter stations, at least two new compressor stations in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire, and modifications to existing pipeline infrastructure. Part of a growing web of pipelines that are moving Marcellus Shale and other gas across the continent, this project would have further connections to the Spectra Energy’s Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline that goes through Maine to the Canadian Maritime provinces, to terminals on the Atlantic coast. In addition, six lateral lines off the main pipeline include:

  • Nashua Lateral (Pepperell, MA into Hollis, NH)
  • Worcester Lateral
  • Pittsfield Lateral
  • Haverhill Lateral
  • Fitchburg Lateral Extension
  • Lynnfield Lateral

Municipalities React, Resistance Mounts

The plan was announced in late January 2014. Despite the endorsements of governors in six states in the Northeast to increase the region’s supply of natural gas, more than three dozen Massachusetts towns in the path of the pipeline have passed resolutions opposing the project (map below). After the December 8, 2014 release of a substantially revised route that would run 71 miles of the pipeline through New Hampshire rather than northern Massachusetts, Granite State municipalities have also raised their voices in opposition. Residents have cited concerns about the accidental releases of gas or chemicals used in during hydraulic fracturing in general, as well as the direct impacts that the pipeline would have on sensitive wetlands, conservation lands, state parks, private properties, and other critical habitats in Massachusetts, including crossing under or over the Connecticut River. We’ve also included point locations of federally designated National Wetlands Inventory sites on or adjacent to the current and newly-described pipeline routes, as well as other environmental assets such as waterways, lakes, state parks and forest lands.

Proposed Pipeline Paths and Opposition Resolutions


For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.

Currently, approximately 37% of residents contacted by Tennessee Gas for the pipeline rights-of-way have agreed to surveys of their lands. Massachusetts towns likely to be in the path of the pipeline include Richmond, Lenox, Pittsfield, and Dalton. In addition, Hancock, Hinsdale, Peru, Savoy, Stockbridge, Washington, West Stockbridge and Windsor counties are expected to be in the path.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 50% of New England’s electric power supply comes from natural gas, with a mere 9.3% sourced from renewable resources. Opponents of the project, such as the citizen group No Fracked Gas in Mass, are pushing for more resources and policy-planning to focus on alternative, renewable energy, rather than enhancing fossil fuel dependencies.

Additional concern has come from the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition (MLTC). MLTC sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick expressing their alarm that while Tennessee Gas has asserted that they will be using existing gas pipeline rights-of-way, landowners across the northern tier of Massachusetts have received letters from the gas company asking for permission to use their land. Were the pipeline to go this route, MLTC says, it would also run directly through public- and privately-owned stretches of conservation land.

In early August 2014, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick indicated to opponents of the pipeline his growing skepticism about the plan. A few days later, the New England States Committee on Electricity filed for an extension of a schedule looking at a proposal that would levy new tariffs on electric customers in order to finance projects such as this pipeline.

Additional Resources

NOTE: This article was updated on December 27, 2014, to include information about the revised pipeline route that we were not aware of when this article was originally released earlier in the month.

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