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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Explosive Natural Gas

Air Date: Week of
Frank Gallagher- investigative blogger & editor of Naturalgaswatch.org

There are more than a third of a million miles of natural gas transmission pipelines in the U.S., and more to come. But sometimes they rupture, devastating homes and lives. Bruce Gellerman speaks with investigative blogger Frank Gallagher, editor of NaturalGasWatch.org, about the hazards of the vast system.


PRI ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Crisscrossing the nation is a huge network of pipelines carrying natural gas under high pressure. The transmission lines run about a third of a million miles over and under the United States. In addition, the boom in gas drilling and shale formations has lead to thousands more miles of new gas gathering pipelines, which are largely unregulated by federal authorities. Secretary of Transportation Ray La Hood has said, ‘improving the safety of pipelines is the first thing I think of in the morning and the last thing that keeps me up at night.’ Well, in Sept 2010, the nation got a wake up call. A pipeline exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. Eight died, 38 homes were destroyed.

TELEVISION CLIP: MALE RESIDENT: It sounded like a jet, almost like just a giant roar, and then the biggest boom I’ve ever heard in my life. WOMAN REPORTER: But it was a high-pressure natural gas line that ruptured, caused the explosion and then fueled the spectacular blaze. The local utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, says they will be accountable if it’s determined they were at fault.

GELLERMAN: PG&E, owner of the pipeline, did accept responsibility for the disaster. But investigative blogger Frank Gallagher says it's not an isolated case. Frank, welcome to Living on Earth.

GALLAGHER: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: Let's talk about the San Bruno accident. What happened?

GALLAGHER: Faulty valves, lack of shut off valves, that was the, you know, cause of the explosion. But at the end of the day, it was discovered that these pipelines had been uninspected for years. And that PG&E, in fact, didn’t have any of the records pertaining to any of the pipelines. They couldn't even tell you where they were exactly or when the last time was that they looked at them.

GELLERMAN: Reading your online blog NaturalGasWatch.org suggests very strongly that this is not an isolated case.

GALLAGHER: Oh, absolutely not. There are major pipeline incidents all over the country with astonishing regularity. I mean, following San Bruno, you had a major explosion in Philadelphia that killed one person. You had Allentown, which killed six people, I believe. Just the first week of January, you had a major explosion in Kentucky which was the fourth major explosion in ten years in Kentucky! I mean these things occur with jaw-dropping regularity.

GELLERMAN: We have something like a third of a million miles of natural gas transmission lines throughout this country. It’s a huge network.

GALLAGHER: It is and it’s expanding everyday. I mean, with the discovery of the Marcellus Shale gas play, the goal now of these companies is to get that gas to market as quickly as possible and the way to do that is to expand the transmission system. So they’re building pipelines at an incredible pace.

GELLERMAN: They want to build a pipeline that’s going to go through Jersey City, Bayonne, New Jersey, to Staten Island and then come up in Manhattan.

GALLAGHER: Under the Hudson, right into lower Manhattan. Just blocks away from where the World Trade Center was.

GELLERMAN: The mayor of Jersey City, which is the second largest city in New Jersey, says ‘No way José!’

GALLAGHER: He does, but unfortunately, you know, it’s out of his hands. At the end of the day, the decision rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC. They have final approval.

GELLERMAN: So, what are the concerns?

GALLAGHER: Well, the concerns are very real. The concerns are that this thing could explode. I mean if you look at Spectra Energy, their safety record has got some spots on it.

GELLERMAN: Spectra is the company that wants to build this?

GALLAGHER: Spectra Energy is the company that wants to build this. And the notion of bringing a 42-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. It’s not a question of if something happens, it’s a question of when.

GELLERMAN: What’s the pressure of these pipelines?

GALLAGHER: Anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 psi - pounds per square inch - which is enormous high pressure.

GELLERMAN: Spectra says this is going to be the safest pipeline in the United States. They say we’ve got these robots which can detect and fill leaks, that we’ve got these emergency valves, and…well, you’re smiling.

GALLAGHER: Yes, of course I am, because that is what the pipeline companies say every time they want to build a pipeline. And I would point you to the Millennium Pipeline in New York State, the southern tier, this thing was built a couple, two years ago to pipe shale gas directly off the Marcellus Shale play into New York City. Two years old. This pipeline was just shut down by the feds - the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration - because of defective welds. And these were welds that were identified as defective before they went into the ground.

One day, you know, an inspector was walking by and saw bubbles coming out of a creek, which is indicative of a leak. And the feds came in, went through all of the paperwork, looked at the leaks, and said this is an accident waiting to happen. Shut this thing down right now and come up with a plan to fix this, or we’ll shut it down for you.

GELLERMAN: The Congress recently passed new federal regulations punishing companies that violate the law of doubling the fines.

GALLAGHER: Right, for what? One hundred thousand to 200,000 dollars? You know, a 200,000 dollar fine, a million dollar fine, is not going to bankrupt these companies. The fact is there, as you said, are 350,000 miles of transmission lines throughout this country, expanding at a rapid pace, and the federal agencies that are charged with overseeing this, you know like every other federal agency, are under-funded, under-staffed, over-worked. There is absolutely no way that the couple of dozen inspectors that are assigned to these pipelines can keep up.

GELLERMAN: This bill that recently passed was considered a jobs bill and it increases the number of inspectors from 124 to 134.

GALLAGHER: Right. It adds, what, ten inspectors? So the notion that ten inspectors are going to be able to adequately police pipelines is absurd. It’s absolutely absurd!

GELLERMAN: Natural gas - we’ve got an abundance of it, it’s cheap, it burns clean, it’s considered a bridge fuel until we can get to renewable resources…

GALLAGHER: Right, right. Well, it’s cheap depending on what you consider cheap. If you’re talking strictly dollars and cents, then you can maybe make a case that it’s cheap. If you want to add in all of the other costs – the societal costs that occur and that have to be paid for getting this gas out of the ground and to market – it becomes extraordinarily expensive.

Because shale gas, over and above traditional gas, has a carbon cost of getting it from the well-head to market that puts it, if Cornell research is to be believed, makes it more carbon intensive than coal. We will put more carbon into the air extracting this natural gas than you would if you just went and burned coal because this stuff needs truck after truck after truck to get it out and to market. I mean, you have water that has to be trucked in, injected, then removed, trucked out. For example, there are days in Wyoming where, rural Wyoming--this is farm country, cows, ranchers--have worse air quality than Los Angeles.


GALLAGHER: Because of natural gas drilling.

GELLERMAN: Natural gas is methane.

GALLAGHER: Absolutely.

GELLERMAN: Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

GALLAGHER: It’s, depending on who you talk to, it’s anywhere from 20 to 30 times more damaging than carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and they’re venting this stuff off freely. You know, if you consider all those costs, then suddenly natural gas becomes not so cheap.

GELLERMAN: Frank Gallagher’s investigative blog is called NaturalGasWatch.org. Frank Gallagher, thank you very much for coming in.

GALLAGHER: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Professor Vaughn Bryant of Texas A&M University is a crime scene investigator.



Natural Gas Watch

U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

National Transportation Safety Board

Whitehouse Blog


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