Piping Gas:  Why Think About Pipelines?

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One truth prevails.

To make that statement reality, you have to dig, looking at an issue from as many points of view as you can. You have to identify, call out, and then ignore the scam artists, the liars, the fools. Look at all the angles and you will discover that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is only when you consider all the information that the one truth prevails.

Keeping an objective and open mind requires effort. When you are objective, when you own your own opinion, you become a sovereign thinker, Nietzsche’s “sovereign individual,” who is able to make promises, not because he is bound by social mores but because he is master of his own free will.

Groups do not appreciate sovereign thinkers, because the sovereign thinker is dangerous to the group. When you don’t think like the group, the group attempts to influence you, first through guile, then by threat. Finally, if you refuse to assimilate, they exfoliate you.

I am a sovereign thinker. Let’s say that I have exfoliated many times, and I have healthy skin and a healthy soul. I don’t follow the opinions of others; I follow my own. If you want to piss me off, dismiss my opinions as “just following the pack.” Be careful — I defend my thinking forcefully, and you are likely to get hurt doing so.

That leads me to my next statement.

If you got the notion that I am pro-natural gas and pro-pipeline, you are right. Logic and truth prevails.

  1. Unlike any other fuel, natural gas is not easily portable. You can’t pour it into a can and carry it like gasoline. It is hard to transport in a truck or rail car tanker like diesel. You can’t pour it into a hopper car like coal. The best way to move it is in a pipe. If we are to use natural gas as an energy source, we have to use pipelines. (While we are on that point, the safest and most economical way to move oil and petroleum products long distances across land is by pipeline. Trains and trucks are inherently more dangerous and exposed to failure, as the recent crude-oil train wrecks in Quebec and North Dakota demonstrate.)
  2. I do not accept the climate change hysteria. I do believe man influences the environment, but I think the planet will be fine. The planet does not have to worry; it is the people who should worry, not about the planet, but about themselves.
  3. Using fuels that create less pollution just for the sake of creating less pollution is insufficient. Burning diesel, gasoline, and coal creates a number of polluting compounds, like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sooty particulates. Natural gas is not a pure fairy dust fuel either; it creates carbon when burned. All alternatives have some form of downside: wind turbines chopping up birds, solar fields cooking wildlife, the seismic activity of geothermal energy, the flooding caused by hydroelectric power — all have their faults. Every argument made about climate change is like a coin; there is a counter-argument. There is a scientific consensus that warmer temperatures do more good than harm. Don’t believe it? Go check out Why Climate Change is Good for the World. The consensus is small, but small is the nature of those with the courage to think differently.
  4. Economics matters. Ignoring the total economic costs of choosing energy alternatives is hypocrisy. Just as individuals need air, water, food, and shelter at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, society needs economic activity at the bottom of its pyramid. Wind and solar energy does not work economically now without a 25% cost subsidy paid by other forms of energy, a subsidy that affects the poor far more than the rich. All energy systems involve activities, and economic activity far removed from the actual consumption of the energy. Alternatives must perform in contemporary economics. Keep that in mind in the future, when I ask “Where do you think oil prices are moving to?”
  5. We have enough natural gas available in our country to fulfill much of our need for heat and electrical energy, to produce plastics and other hydrocarbon-based materials. The technical challenges involved with using CNG and LNG as motor fuel are not theoretical; we know that both will fuel internal combustion engines. What we have to figure out is the technology of application, things like fuel tanks, pumps, distribution networks, and the safety measures to keep that genie in the bottle.

Being pro-natural gas pipeline does not mean I am not concerned about the safety of the pipelines. I am very concerned. Concern, however, is not fear.

Gas Transmission Failures

Gas transmission pipeline opponents point to spectacular transmission pipeline explosions as a reason to stop pipelines. They accuse the pipeline companies of corporate greed, claiming that the aging pipeline system is explosive death just waiting to happen. The real reasons for these explosions are far simpler and less sinister.

The ways gas pipelines fail:

  • External and internal Corrosion
  • Rains/floods/earth Movement
  • Excavation damage
  • Manufacturing defects in materials, components and welds

Gas Transmission Pipeline Age % Miles.JPG

The problem of our aging transportation infrastructure is not just limited to the highways and waterways. The natural gas pipeline system is also aging. Considering that 12 percent of the mileage of the total gas transmission system is over 60 years old, and 70 percent is over 30 years old, age could be a factor in these failures.

According to The Role of Pipeline Age in Pipeline Safety, a report sponsored by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Gas Industry (INGAA), age is not the primary cause of gas pipeline incidents. The report details causes that appear to correlate with pipeline age, corrosion, rains and floods, damage from third-party excavation, and pipe body failures.

The key findings from the report:

Ultimately, the safety of a particular natural gas transmission pipeline is not necessarily related to its age because:

  1. 85% of pipeline incidents reported to PHMSA from 2002-2009 occurred irrespective of the age of the pipeline, with just 15% related in some way to the age of the pipeline.
  2. The properties of the steels which comprise natural gas pipelines do not change with time; that is, pipe does not “wear out.”
  3. The fitness of a pipeline for service does not necessarily expire at some point in time.
  4. The integrity of those pipelines for which the fitness for service may degrade with the passage of time can be assessed periodically. Timely repairs - and other mitigation efforts - based on those assessments will ensure the pipeline’s continued fitness for service.
  5. A well-maintained and periodically assessed pipeline can safely transport natural gas indefinitely.

Remember to ask the question qui bono — "who benefits?" Commissioned by the trade association that represents the interstate transmission pipeline companies, the report summarizes the materials and construction methods used to build gas transmission pipelines. It presents an analysis of reported incidence data indicating that some older pipelines may have issues, specific to corrosion, welds, and pipe shape deformity. However, the report hangs quite a bit of opinion on the first point, only 15 percent of the incidents could be age-related.

Transparency allows light to reach in and illuminate an issue, building trust. A lack of transparency clouds the issue, damaging trust. Omissions of fact leave people with a feeling that something is not right. That hands ammunition to the propagandists.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt. That is how some of the most effective forms of propaganda work. It is a three-step process:

  1. Pick out something that people are fearful of, create a fear that they “don’t know” they already have. People are afraid of fire, explosions, and terrorists. “Natural gas pipelines are dangerous because they have a history of exploding. Explosions and fire kills people. Natural gas has all sorts of carcinogenic compounds that can poison you.”
  2. Create uncertainty. Use many references that prove your point, but make sure not to include any that make a counterpoint. Make claims that are hard to research or hard to prove. Don’t provide any reference that could counter the claim.
  3. Create doubt about the other side. Pile on attacks on the motives of the other side. Create doubt that the other side can be trusted. Smear the reputation of those who make counter arguments.

Sound familiar?

Let’s attack the issue of fear right now.

By far, pipelines are the safest transport method for natural gas. They are not foolproof, but they are the safest. Do accidents happen? Yes, but you must look at what causes the actual harm, not the most fear. Local distribution systems are the source of most mishaps, the product of old cast-iron and bare steel lines the local gas companies operate. Should we worry about a 30-inch transmission line in our backyard or under our street, like the one in San Bruno? Perhaps. But we really need to be concerned about the smaller distribution lines, which are less than 12 inches in diameter and working at under 75 PSIG.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigates accidents on interstate transportation systems. We know the NTSB from movies about plane wrecks. But the NTSB investigates more than just air crashes; their Go Teams hit the scene of any air accident, interstate bus accident, train accident, or hazardous materials accident — including pipeline failures.

The NTSB web site provides a listing of all current investigations and past investigation reports, all the way back to NTSB's establishment as an independent agency in 1967. All reports published after 1996 appear, while earlier reports appear as the board digitizes and posts the reports. The NTSB does not investigate all accidents, but does investigate serious and significant ones.

A solid resource for data about pipeline incidents is the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The PHMSA reports three levels of incidents.

  • Serious Incidents:  when there is a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization, and are a subset of:
  • Significant Incidents:  when the incident meets a number of predefined conditions, including minimum value for property damage, value or volume of product lost, and criteria for fire and/or explosion.
  • All Incidents.

Significant Incident Cuases - Onshort Nat Gas Transmission 1993-2012.JPG

PHMSA reports 992 Significant Incidents between 1993 and 2013 for Onshore Gas Transmission Pipelines, of which 117 are Serious Incidents. Material and equipment failure is the leading cause of significant incidents, at 27 percent. Excavation damage (19.4 percent) caused by poor construction practices, and corrosion damage (18.5 percent) round out the rest of the top three causes. An incident can have multiple causes. The 2010 San Bruno explosion is an example of both weld failure and incorrect operations.

  1. in 1956, there were faulty field welds in the San Bruno pipeline (see summary report). These don’t happen today because of improved pipeline construction practices, like the use of x-ray and ultrasound weld inspection. At San Bruno, it was not a question of if the weld would fail, but when it would fail. Line overpressure provided the when in this case, as the SCADA controls in a manifold station moved to manual to facilitate electrical maintenance. The full NTSB report is a story of historic mismanagement at PG&E throughout the 1950s. Bad field practice, poor record keeping, and exemption of required safety inspections contributed to the line 132 burst. Bad welds made 54 years before the doomed pipeline section burst indicate that old age was a factor in the failure.

Dealing With the Fear


Until we discover a way to harness unicorn farts as a motor fuel, natural gas is the next best alternative fossil fuel. To make this happen, industry and government must address the safety issues associated with the transmission of gas. People are fearful of the dangers, and what they fear, they will fight. Some people are afraid of natural gas-powered vehicles because they have seen the massive (but rare) pipeline explosions on the websites of natural gas opponents. They fail to realize that every day, they drive vehicles that carry a fuel that, gallon for gallon, is 20 percent more powerful, more flammable, and far more destructive than natural gas.

Gas Flaring space.JPG

We need the transmission pipelines to distribute natural gas to make it a motor fuel. As long as people fear pipelines, that fear will thwart the success of natural gas as a motor fuel. We need an expanded natural gas collection and distribution system that promotes the use of natural gas that we are already wasting in the extraction of oil. As this PennEnergy Article illustrates, the oil extraction process in the Bakkin and Williston basins of the Dakota generates a prodigious supply of natural gas. Today, that gas is burned, (flared), at the wells at a rate of an estimated $100 million per month. The oil producers waste this gas because the cost to gather it and transport it to the market is more than the gas is worth. It takes too long to design, permit, and then build a natural gas pipeline. The market demand for natural gas is too soft to price the gas at a point where it makes economic sense to capture it. Without more demand, gas will vent and burn off at oil wells around the world as a nuisance, not as a resource.

If you want to find out where natural gas pipelines (and other pipelines for that matter) are located where you live, visit Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration National Pipeline Mapping System.

For a little intelligent humor, let’s listen to one of the best wise guys of the 20th century, George Carlin, who talks about saving the planet. Warning — it is George Carlin, so the language is colorful.

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