A little after 11 p.m. local time in the western Illinois town of Erie, residents heard a massive blast and then saw flames shooting 300 feet into the air, visible for 20 miles.
A cornfield had just exploded.
Underneath the cornfield, a natural gas pipeline carrying gas byproducts ethane and propane had somehow ruptured, caught fire, and exploded, sending gouts of smoke into the air. Around 80 families within a one-mile radius of the blast were initially evacuated, though by Tuesday morning, all but two had returned to their homes.
This eyewitness video of the fire following the blast reported that air traffic controllers in Kansas City, Missouri heard from overflying aircraft that they could see this fire in Pawnee, Illinois — more than 160 miles from Erie.
He says he is 3–4 miles away and “you can hear the roar of the pressure at this time.”
Scott Melton, the assistant fire chief in Erie, said that the operators of the pipeline had reduced the flow of natural gas by remotely closing a valve, and were letting the gas burn off. “It’s not much of a fire now, but there’s still some fuel left in the pipe and they’re going to let that burn off, because it’s the safest way to handle it,” he said.
The hydrocarbons that ignited, ethane and propane, are extracted along with methane in natural gas fields, but are often used for different petrochemical purposes. Propane is used for home heating and as fuel for grills, while ethane is usually used to make plastics. They can be transported more easily in liquid form than methane, the largest component of natural gas. All three are greenhouse gases, and when burned, heat-trapping carbon dioxide is created.
The pipeline is owned by Enterprise Products Partners, a Houston-based energy company that operates 50,000 miles of natural gas, oil, and petrochemical pipeline throughout the U.S. In August, 2011, a pipeline carrying 140,000 gallons of natural gasoline operated by Enterprise leaked an unknown amount of the volatile liquid into the Missouri River in Iowa.
One alternative route that tar sands oil producers in Alberta considered after President Obama initially delayed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline was to use the Seaway pipeline (then jointly owned by Enterprise and ConocoPhillips), combined with other pipelines, to pump tar sands oil through the United States. The obstacle was that the flow of the pipeline went south-to-north, but in 2012, Enterprise and its new partner, Enbridge, reversed the flow so that it pumps oil from Oklahoma to Freeport, Texas. This pipeline could carry as much oil as Keystone.
The whole point behind fossil fuels like natural gas, natural gas byproducts, oil, and coal is that they can be combusted — burned up for heat. This can happen in a controlled reaction, where it emits greenhouse gases while producing energy inefficiently. It can also happen in an uncontrolled reaction that emits carbon dioxide and other harmful byproducts into the atmosphere, like an offshore natural gas platform blowout. Or Monday night’s accident in Erie, Illinois, where a farmer’s cornfield exploded.