Newsbrief Archive

Natural Gas Currents News - December 2015

Pipeline Safety in the Government Spotlight

A new set of safety guidelines for natural gas pipelines appears to be imminent. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has proposed new rules for detecting leaks, making pipeline repairs and replacing aging infrastructure.

There is also federal legislation in the works. On Sept. 30, the House Energy and Commerce Committee formally backed the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015, a bill that would provide incentives for natural gas pipeline replacements. Subsequently, the bill was passed in the House on December 3, and now goes to the Senate for consideration.

In addition, a Senate subcommittee convened a Sept. 29 hearing on “Pipeline Safety: Oversight of Our Nation’s Pipeline Network.” This was the second hearing of its kind as the Committee considers new pipeline safety legislation.

This action has been spurred by serious US pipeline incidents in the past decade. Over the last 10 years, more than 1,700 “significant” gas leaks in American pipelines have resulted in at least 135 deaths, 600 injuries and billions of dollars in damages. A “significant” leak is defined as one that causes death, injury or at least $50,000 in property damage.

It’s actually a small percentage when you consider the number of pipelines in the country–300,000 miles of transmission pipelines and 2.1 million miles of distribution lines–but many of the accidents are preventable, according to experts.

Environmental Issues

Another issue is the environmental hazard, and cost of wasted fuel, caused by pipeline leaks. According to a recent story in the Colorado-based High Country News, “methane’s global warming potential is about 30 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. So when a natural gas pipeline leaks, it cuts into the greenhouse gas benefits gained at the electricity-generation stage.” 

PHMSA has estimated that, since 2010, more than 13 billion cubic feet of gas has been released into the atmosphere through pipeline leaks.

Aging Infrastructure

The major cause of gas leaks is a pipeline network that is old and in need of repair. About 38 percent of the nation’s distribution pipelines and 57 percent of transmission lines were built before 1970, when the first federal safety rules for gas pipelines were instituted.

Approximately 12 percent of these pipelines date back to the 1940s and earlier.

Many of the old pipelines were made of cast iron and bare steel, which are prone to corrosion and cracking. Although there are other causes for leaking pipelines–such as severe weather, automobile accidents and careless digging–identification and replacement of aging pipelines is the top priority.

The Cost

The biggest issue with pipeline replacement is the tremendous cost, which is then passed on to ratepayers. Replacing one mile of pipeline costs at least $1 million, sometimes as much as $2-3 million. Because replacement is also a time-intensive process, utilities are forced to prioritize these projects, focusing on infrastructure that is most likely to fail.

Alternative Solutions

Since a full change-out of pipelines can take decades, other solutions are currently being used. These include Integrity management and cathodic protection.

As you're likely aware, integrity management--consisting of testing the system, identifying potential problems, ranking the risks and implementing appropriate measures--can be very effective, and is more practical, than wholesale replacement but does not entirely eliminate the risk of pipeline failure.

The same can be said for cathodic protection, a technique used to control the corrosion of a metal surface by making it the cathode of an electrochemical cell. Through this method, the pipeline surface is connected to a more easily corroded “sacrificial metal” to act as the anode.

What’s Next?

Virtually everyone agrees that a safer natural gas pipeline system is in everyone’s best interests. The main issue is: who is going to foot the bill? And how will this affect rates and profits?

An equally important concern is whether utilities can make the necessary repairs and replacements quickly enough to significantly reduce the number of potential accidents.

Some of the proposed federal legislation will provide financial incentives for pipeline replacement. When will it take effect? Will it be enough? Either way, it appears that natural gas utilities will face some challenging decisions in the years to come.

Watch for next month's Natural Gas Currents Newsbrief. And, for information regarding educational resources that address gas leak recognition and response, call us at 800-428-5837, email solutions@culverco.com or visit www.culverco.com/catalog.