Fossil Fuel Interests, Environmentalists, And Unions Find One Thing They Agree On

CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Deborah Hersman stands next to the damaged pipe from the San Bruno natural-gas explosion during a news conference at the NTSB Training Center and Lab in Ashburn, Va., Monday, August 29, 2011, to discuss the federal investigation into the San Bruno blast.

Everyone can agree that saving money is a good thing. Saving money by not leaking valuable, potent greenhouse gases is a very good thing. Creating jobs through rebuilding infrastructure also tends to attract (relatively) few dissenters.

So it should be no surprise that environmentalists, unions, and natural gas interests like the American Public Gas Association can agree that repairing leaky, old pipes that transport natural gas throughout the country is a good thing. Unions and environmentalists are not always on the same page, and it was big news last week when the largest private-sector union in Canada joined with environmental groups to opposed a tar sands pipeline.

It could cost $82 billion to fix 30,000 miles of decaying cast-iron natural gas pipes, but the American Gas Association estimates that only 500-700 miles of pipe get repaired each year. Some of that is just reaction to accidents or natural disasters, like the pipelines that broke during the massive flooding in Colorado. While this is important, it doesn’t address existing pipelines, some of which were built well before WWII.

What happens when a natural gas pipeline develops a leak? Natural gas is mostly methane, which is both highly combustible when ignited, and very effective at retaining the planet’s heat when in the atmosphere. When safely transported from the wellhead all the way to the consumer — be it gas-fired electric power plant, industrial manufacturer, or the neighbor’s stove — it is true that a controlled burn of this gas emits less pollutants than the same amount of coal or oil. If something goes wrong during transmission along those 30,000 miles of pipeline, it tends to go very wrong.

In August, a natural gas pipeline ruptured and caused a cornfield to explode in Illinois — sending gouts of flame and smoke 300 feet into the air. Another large explosion of a natural gas line rocked a small town in Texas, causing it to be evacuated. Incidents like these can happen on their own, when enough gas has leaked out through a seam or small hole and built up to be able to ignite when a spark flies or exposed to flame. They can also happen abruptly, if a work crew is sloppy and hits a pipeline, causing an immediate incident.

Two-hundred and forty-four “significant” pipeline incidents, leading to 10 fatalities and 55 injuries, happened in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Since 1993, there have been over 5,612 significant incidents that caused 367 deaths and almost five times as many injuries.

But even slow leaks can cause serious damage.

These aging pipelines, and the wells that have been increasingly fracking shale gas plays to supply them, are likely the source of the much higher levels of leaked methane recent studies have discovered. Some suggest a leakage rate of more than 3 percent, or 6-12 percent, 9 percent, or even 17 percent. The danger of leaks could be even more stark when the gas is transported to equally-old distribution systems in some cities. A researcher at Duke University, Dr. Robert Jackson, found concentrations of methane more than 50 times normal urban background levels, and some believe these leaks are the cause of semi-regular manhole cover explosions.

If that much natural gas is leaking from where it’s drilled, all the way to the consumer, it makes it hard to argue that natural gas is so much better for the climate than coal is. Though burning coal emits more carbon dioxide (and other dangerous pollutants) than gas, if enough methane leaks before the gas can even be burned, that advantage dissipates. A 3.2 percent leakage rate is the threshold beyond which, at a certain point, gas is no better than coal for the climate. This is why fixing leaky pipelines is gaining so many supporters.

According to some environmentalists, supporting investment in repairing natural gas pipelines does not preclude efforts to get the U.S. off of all fossil fuels. Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum told the AP, “I don’t think that calling for the fix of existing leaky pipelines is contrary to a call for ending shale gas development or fracking.” The question is: should resources be invested in repairing pipelines if they come at the expense of additional investment in low-carbon renewable energy and storage that have none of the risks that come with fossil fuels?

This is what is meant by the natural gas “bridge” to an energy system powered by renewables — serious investment in natural gas pipeline infrastructure lengthens that bridge and increases the amount of time before renewable energy like solar, wind, biofuels, and fuel cells can take a significant slice of the pie. Yet at the same time, momentum is with the gas industry, as coal becomes uneconomical. Those who are concerned about climate change have a serious interest in reducing the amount of methane leaked into the air, whether natural gas’s bridge is short or long.

The natural gas industry does not want to leak a single valuable cubic foot of methane into the air, and it obviously wants secure pipelines carrying its product to market. U.S. natural gas production rose to its highest-ever level in 2011, and has continued to skyrocket so that America produces more natural gas than any country in the world. The estimated production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation (mostly in Pennsylvania and West Virginia) will reach another new high in December, at a rate of 13 billion cubic feet per day.

Right now, there is insufficient economic or policy incentive to increase the pace of repairs to the aging system. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced legislation that would “accelerate the repair, rehabilitation, and replacement” of the most risky pipelines, by setting up a “state revolving loan fund for natural gas pipeline repair and replacement to provide additional tools to states and utilities.” It has the support of this same labor and environmental coalition, also joined by the American Public Gas Association.