Inaction, Threats, And New Tech Prompt Mayors To Form Gas Pipeline Safety Council

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Scientists are increasingly making use of new hyper sensitive mobile gas sniffing technology to do what’s never been done before: locate, identify the source, and quantify the carbon emissions leaking from natural gas pipelines. What they’re finding isn’t good. Residents of US cities and other communities are literally sitting atop ticking time bombs, as well as being subject to chronic exposure to methane and other toxic emissions.

Credit: Boston, Duke University
Credit: Boston, Duke University

The serious level of these threats to environmental health and safety notwithstanding, improving and modernizing the nation’s natural gas transmission and distribution infrastructure has been a political and private sector orphan, at least as compared to the attention and resources being devoted to making much needed improvements to US electricity and water grids. Such neglect poses chronic, as well as catastrophic risks to urban and rural communities across the country, which to a large extent, remain unknown.

The potential threats and actual destruction caused by natural gas pipeline leaks, explosions, and fires have galvanized US mayors into action. Members of the US Conference of Mayors met in San Bruno, California recently for the inaugural sessions of the Mayors’ Council on Pipeline Safety. Spearheading the initiative are Mayor Ed Pawlowski of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Mayor Jim Ruane of San Bruno, two cities recently devastated by deadly natural gas explosions and fires.

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US Energy: Natural Gas and Infrastructure

The development of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling techniques have enabled exploration and production companies to extract natural gas from tightly packed shale deposits. That’s led to a boom in natural gas exploration and production, which, in turn, has led to a sharp drop in price and growing use of natural gas to produce electricity.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), “the US natural gas pipeline network is a highly integrated transmission and distribution grid that can transport natural gas to and from nearly any location in the lower 48 States. The natural gas pipeline grid comprises:

  • More than 210 natural gas pipeline systems;
  • 305,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines;
  • More than 1,400 compressor stations that maintain pressure on the natural gas pipeline network and assure continuous forward movement of supplies;
  • More than 11,000 delivery points, 5,000 receipt points, and 1,400 interconnection points that provide for the transfer of natural gas throughout the United States;
  • 24 hubs or market centers that provide additional interconnections;
  • 400 underground natural gas storage facilities;
  • 49 locations where natural gas can be imported/exported via pipelines;
  • 8 LNG (liquefied natural gas) import facilities and 100 LNG peaking facilities.”
Credit: U.S. Natural Gas Pipelines
Credit: U.S. Natural Gas Pipelines

Natural Gas, Pipelines, and Public Health & Safety

The US natural gas transmission and distribution infrastructure is regulated principally by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) , with the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) responsible for “governing the safety standards, procedures, and actual development and expansion of any pipeline system.”

According to PHMSA, there are 321,000 miles of onshore and offshore Gas Transmission and Gathering pipelines and 2,066,000 miles of Gas Distribution mains and service pipelines criss-crossing the US, most of them buried underground.

Posing threats to national security and economic competitiveness as well as environmental health and safety, the issue of upgrading and modernizing America’s natural gas pipeline network has become a political and industry hot potato in recent years, an issue many have preferred to leave to others or ignore completely, rather than come to grips with, Michael Woelk, CEO of Santa Clara, California-based Picarro, explained during a Clean Technica interview.

Inaction on the part of industry, regulators, and at higher levels of government, coupled with the results of recently published landmark scientific studies and natural gas pipeline explosions, have prompted the nation’s mayors to do something about it.

Unaccounted for, and often undiscovered, methane leaks and gas emissions from aging natural gas pipelines are literally a ticking time bomb. A February 2011 natural gas pipeline explosion in Allentown killed five people and destroyed eight homes. As reported by Allentown: City without limits, a September 2010 pipeline explosion and fire in San Bruno killed eight, destroyed 38 homes, and badly damaged 70 more.

Leaks from natural gas pipelines poison water resources and land as well as the air we breathe. Some 72-times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of Global Warming Potential (GWP), methane leaks are intensifying the Greenhouse Effect and contributing to global warming.

Natural Gas Pipelines: Finding and Plugging the Leaks

Discovering and pinpointing the exact location and source and precisely quantifying all the fugitive emissions from natural gas pipeline leaks has been scientifically impossible, as well as economically impractical … up until now that is, Woelk asserted.

The methods and tools being used to do what is being done make such efforts time consuming, labor intensive, and costly for utilities, natural gas distributors, and producers. Moreover, there’s no real incentive for downstream or upstream natural gas industry participants to invest more to discover and plug pipeline leaks. Unaccounted-for losses of natural gas are paid for by end users — natural gas company customers and rate payers, Woelk noted.

“I think it’s pathetic that the Mayors Council even has to consider forming a council on pipeline safety; they should be concentrating on other issues, such as education and health care. The federal government, the utility companies and Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) should be doing something about this.

“No one wants it because it’s been there for so long. They’re (the Mayor’s Council) is saying, ‘We’ll do it if no one else will. They will not give up; they’re going to be relentless on this particular issue. What the utility company managements should be saying is, ‘I’m going to cut them off at the pass. We’re going to start working with them, not against them, get involved and work together to do the right thing.”

Natural gas industry participants and regulators needn’t refrain from taking proactive, preventive action any longer, according to Woelk. Picarro, the company he leads, has developed super-sensitive, mobile “gas sniffing” equipment that may change the rules of the game for natural gas producers, pipeline operators, and utilities.

“It’s the cheapest thing you can imagine.” And, at the end of the day, just what is the cost natural gas companies should be willing to pay? “What’s the appropriate number to ensure the health and safety of your customers, of the communities you serve, of the environment. Really, it should be at almost any cost,” Woelk stated.

Boston and Duke University scientists recently released the results of a landmark study of natural gas leaks in the city, using a version of Picarro’s Surveyor designed for scientific as opposed to industrial applications. Mounted on a Nissan Murano, the researchers used the mobile cavity-ring down CH4 analyzer to locate, analyze and map methane emissions across all 785 road miles of of natural gas pipelines in Boston.

Publishing the results in a report in the February 2013 edition of Environmental Pollution, they found 3,356 methane leaks with concentrations up to 15 times higher than that of global average background levels. The researchers reported finding 3,356 separate natural gas leaks under the streets of Boston.

“While our study was not intended to assess explosion risks, we came across six locations in Boston where gas concentrations exceeded the threshold above which explosions can occur,” Nathan Phillips, associate professor in BU’s Department of Earth and Environment and co-author of the study, was quoted as saying.

Industry, Regulatory Inaction Prompts Mayors to Act

Apparently, utilities aren’t all that concerned. “The utility companies are saying it isn’t a problem. I don’t know how many leaks you’re going to have to have before it’s a problem,” Woelk said. Such studies, he added, “are going to be repeated over and over again. It’s being done in Washington D.C., and they’re trying to do it in New York City.”

PG&E has been raked over the coals for its failure to prevent the natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno. After bitter negotiations, the utility reached a $70 million settlement with the city last March. It’s still trying to settle claims made by 320 residents through a mediation process, however.

The experience has led PG&E to take a much more aggressive and proactive stance when it comes to finding and plugging leaks in its natural gas pipelines, to the degree that PG&E is now championing Picarro’s Surveyor mobile gas leak detection technology.

“They are absolutely committed to finding and fixing all the leaks in its system, having to been to hell and back around the San Bruno incident,” Woelk commented. “If you’re in Boston or any other community, what happens?”

Last October, PG&E announced it was the first power utility in the world to put the Picarro Surveyor to use on a wide-scale basis, expanding its collaboration with Picarro by deploying six Picarro Surveyor devices to detect natural gas leaks throughout its Northern and Central California service area.

The Picarro Surveyor is some “1,000 times more sensitive than traditional leak detection equipment, capable of detecting leaks down to one part per billion in ambient air while reducing false positives from biological sources of methane,” according to the companies.

The devices will be mounted on PG&E vehicles, enabling field staff to detect and precisely identify the sources and nature of methane leaks while on the go. This will be a big improvement: not only are the devices more sensitive and precise, analyzing the isotopic chemical composition of leaks can be performed and communicated via the Internet, in real-time.

Woelk strongly believes natural gas companies up and down the supply chain need to do the same.

“More utilities are coming up. The big issue we have is that there is almost no discussion about how powerful the technology is. How do utilities change their business model? They’re going to have to change their business. How the technology is implemented is the big issue in terms of getting deals done.”

“The same thing is happening on the upstream side” with regard to natural gas producers,” Woelk commented. “If I’m CEO of one of these companies, or a board member, an independent board member; if I’m underwriting the company in question, I now know how to better price policies and what premiums to charge.”

Mayors’ Energy Regulatory Power & Influence

But what capacity, what amount of regulatory leverage do mayors have to effect changes of such magnitude? “The media, celebrities, soccer moms — good leaders don’t need leverage, just the ability to inspire,” Woelk responded.

“Mayors can be fearless. They will often champion causes other government officials higher up the chain run away from. And many hold a lot of power when there’s a process under way that’s going to impact the quality of life of people that live in their cities.”

“Smart mayors will look at this not only as a safety issue, but as a competitiveness issue. The power of mayors routinely has been discounted because they don’t represent as many people as governors, say, or Congressional representatives. But they can focus on issues nearer and dearer to their constituents.”

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