On December 11, 2012, Sue Bonham stood at the epicenter of her home in Sissonville, WV and thought that the earth would swallow her. Projectiles were flying while her household items were sizzling and melting — after a natural gas delivery pipeline had burst and shaken the whole neighborhood there.
“I thought my home and I would explode at any moment,” the elderly woman said, as she explained that horrifying day to a U.S. Senate panel and to federal government regulators in Charleston, WV on Monday. “I was suffocating and thought I’d be burned alive.” Altogether, four homes were incinerated but no one died.
The increased concerns over pipeline safety are occurring alongside the boom in shale gas, which is touted as this country’s energy savior — giving the United States at least a century’s worth of newfound natural gas. But if shale gas that is embedded in rocks and found a mile beneath the ground is to reach its promise, it would need an expanded infrastructure in place.
At present, 2.5 million miles of existing natural gas pipelines exist in the United States, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Half of that was installed prior to 1970, meaning that the standards by which they have been built are not as strict as the more recently constructed lines. With the share of natural gas used to fuel power plants expected to keep rising, gas producers are saying that between 29,000 and 62,000 miles of new pipeline is needed over the next 25 years.
How can policymakers reconcile the need for safety with that of trying to accommodate an expected surge in shale gas? The age of the underground lines is less important than whether they are getting adequately maintained, says Deborah Hersman, chair of the safety board, at the hearing. Current law requires that pipelines be inspected every seven years, although those located near population centers necessitate more frequent oversight.
“If it is adequately maintained and inspected, age is not an issue,” she said at the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee hearing that is chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV. In the case of the pipeline eruption in Sissonville, Hersman said that it was an older line that had “corroded,” or which had lost 70 percent of the wall’s thickness. The line is owned by NiSource Gas Transmission and is operated by its subsidiary Columbia Gas Transmission. The explosion in West Virginia comes about two years after one in Northern California. There, a pipeline owned by PG&E Corp. erupted, killing nine people and destroying 38 homes. In that situation, the National Transportation Safety Board assigned much of the blame on the utility, saying that it had no methods in place to detect structural weaknesses in its pipeline. It also said that the PG&E did not have shut-off valves that would have limited the explosion’s severity.
Altogether, the risk of pipeline accidents has been steadily declining, says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Despite the increased use of energy, incidents involving death or major injury have fallen by about 10 percent every three years. The risks of hazardous liquid pipeline spills that do lots of ecological damage have also dropped by 5 percent a year.
The hazardous materials agency has 135 inspectors, says Administrator Cynthia Quarterman. “We require them — the pipeline operators — to respond ‘promptly,’” she says, recognizing that that Columbia Gas has been sharply criticized for the 60 minutes it had taken to turn off the gas during the Sissonville pipeline accident.
“When operators have an alert in a control room, they should alert the authorities and immediately move to shutting it down,” especially if the line is losing pressure, Quarterman told the committee. If the gas pressure is reduced, it is a clear sign that leakage is occurring.
To that end, a government watchdog group is recommending the use of automatic shut-off valves, as opposed to those that must be manually attended. Susan Fleming, who authored a report by the General Accountability Office, told the U.S. Senate panel that such automation could have shut off the Sissonville line within minutes. She adds, however, that the cost of those devices can be high and that they may turn off gas in the event of a false alarm.
Fleming went on to say that the industry does not collect valued information that could help government monitors. Proper metrics such as the amount of time it takes to identify a problem and to close a valve are essential. It’s about applying “lessons learned” to mitigate the fallout of future episodes.
As for the December 2012 event, NiSource says that it was able to isolate the incident and to secure the site while “working proactively with federal state officials to design and implement an Integrity Assurance plan that will ensure a safe return to service and the long-term integrity of the line.”
Columbia Transmission’s response team is on duty 24-hours a day, seven days a week, adds Jimmy Staton, chief executive of NiSource Gas Transmission Storage, before the committee. He says that Columbia’s engineering team will complete the repair work so that the line can be returned to service, albeit at a reduced pressure than before the accident — and with the approval of federal and state regulators.
Staton concluded his testimony by saying that his company is systematically replacing its aging infrastructure and expanding its ability to perform state-of-the-art maintenance and inspections without interrupting service. It will be investing $2 billion in this program over the next five years, he says.
The pipeline industry, generally, says that most of the accidents that occur do so outside the purview of the operator. It says that such factors as “excavation” account for most incident reports while 10 percent are the result of corrosion, construction or operation of the lines.
However, a 2011 pipeline safety law is intended to minimize all accidents. The measure lays the foundation to require the use of remote controlled and automatic shut-off valves on new pipelines. It also requires authorities to be notified before any excavation occurs. And, it mandates operators verify records and re-establish lines’ maximum operating pressures while also increasing penalties on operators that fail to meet such standards.
“Natural gas transmission is relatively safe but that is like saying that flying is safe until your plane goes down,” Rockefeller told reporters before the hearing.
The pipeline accident in Sissonville, WV didn’t just shake the home of Sue Bonham. It also rattled the whole natural gas sector, which must work closely with federal and state monitors to secure the infrastructure and to give the public confidence. A failure to do so would have far-reaching implications for an industry that is considered America’s bridge to energy independence.
Dr. Ali Ghalambor is an expert in the field of oil and gas. Visit this Facebook page for more about the industry.