Digging near existing Natural Gas pipelines is the number one cause of accidents, whether involving transmission or distribution systems. A waiting period of 48 hours is generally necessary to allow time for the gas company to mark the location of the pipeline, and many accidents occur due to excavation without consulting the pipeline company or impatience regarding the waiting period. Almost 3/5 of all reported pipeline incidents from 1995 to 2004 were due to digging or excavation damage, according to the US Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety. The remaining portion of accidents had other causes such as fire, above ground damage by a motor vehicle, or corrosion.
Corrosion is also commonly caused by excavation damage, making it more susceptible to rust and deterioration. One third of all natural gas leakage incidents were caused by excavation in 2004, and the number continues to climb as population and construction increases. Any destruction to a pipeline system from the outside is considered excavation damage, and these incidents are far more likely in residential or high population densities. Though this is a logical statistic, contacting the pipeline company and waiting to determine the route of the pipe could have prevented each of these incidents.
Fire and explosion, a minority cause of pipeline accidents, accounted for 26 of the 77 incidents in 2004. These most commonly occur on the premises of a factory or refinery, and are usually well contained. Vehicular damage to above ground natural gas units accounted for 12 accidents in 2004, and corrosion only caused three. Though these causes combined make up a sizable percentage of the small number of pipeline accidents, pipeline companies are constantly striving to eliminate these causes and have some authority to do so. Excavation damage, however, is much more difficult to control.
Taking into account all of these incidents and their causes, pipeline disasters are extremely rare. Pipelines continue to be an extremely safe way to transport natural gas. With over two million miles of pipeline laid throughout the United States, providing natural gas to almost 70 million residents, power plants, and businesses, the safety statistics are astounding. Compared to the damage incurred by the automobile industry, pipelines are extremely safe. Both regulations by the FERC and interests of private drilling and transportation companies, like the Western Pipeline Corporation, continue to strive for perfection in eliminating all natural gas accidents, but the cooperation of the public and private sectors to prevent excavation damage is vital to this kind of success.
About the Author: Bob Jent is the CEO of Western Pipeline Corporation. Western Pipeline Corp is a successful, private independent producer of oil and natural gas.