Are pipelines safe? Part I: the Pipeline in the Backyard

Pipelines have been in the headlines and on our communities’ minds, due to the region’s relatively new status as home to the world’s largest supply of natural gas (Marcellus and Utica Shale), and the expanding infrastructure needed to carry that natural resource from northeast and southwest Pennsylvania to demand centers in Philadelphia, the Gulf Coast, and Canada.  This abundance of natural gas supports the renewable power industry; natural gas is a flexible, responsive compliment to renewables that wax and wane with weather changes and the time of day.  The abundance of the resource drives down power prices, opening the door for a manufacturing renaissance in this region. Natural gas is also one of the major drivers behind a 3% nationwide drop in carbon emissions, even while the economy grew by 1.6%.

But for homeowners who are now confronted with a pipeline being routed through their property or their community, and in many cases the dual realization that a pipeline existed there all along, the question is: are pipelines safe?

There are two basic types of products being moved.  Dry gas, which is what we traditionally think of as natural gas, is compressed and used to heat homes, produce power, and fuel natural gas vehicles.  There are some companies using dry gas wells right on their property as a low carbon, clean power source for manufacturing.  For all gas transmission lines, which includes dry gas, offshore and onshore, since 1997, there has been an average of two fatalities per year and nine injuries; for more detailed information check out theUS DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration website.

The other main product being transported is wet gas, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) – propane, butane and ethane.  NGLs are the building block for plastics, a source of cooking and home heating fuel (propane), and vehicle fuel.  Highly Volatile Liquids (HVLs) such as propane and ethane, which are being transported by Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East pipelines, are a subset of a broader category classified as Hazardous Liquids. Hazardous liquids are a separate category from natural gas.  For pipelines carrying Hazardous Liquids onshore and offshore there have been, on average, two fatalities per year from 1997 to 2016 nationwide; the average number of injuries per year is five.  For more detail see the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) data chart below which shows a general decreasing trend since 2004. 

PHMSA Pipeline Incidents: Fatalities (1997-2016)

Do more miles of pipelines correlate with more risk?  Pipeline infrastructure expands each year.  In 2004, the US had 166,669 miles of hazardous liquids pipelines. As of 2016, the total grew to 211,150 miles, a 27% increase.  PHMSA does not analyze correlations between miles of pipeline and human and environmental risk.  The American Petroleum Institute (API), however, does.

Considering all pipelines - crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas liquids - miles of pipelines have increased by 13% over the past five years, while major (classified as larger than 500 barrels of product released) pipeline incidents per mile are down nearly a third. Incidents potentially impacting people or the environment outside of an operator’s facility are down 52 percent since 1999 (for more details see the American Petroleum Institute (API) report released in 2016). 

The Fraser Institute, an independent think tank in Canada ranked as one of the top (19th) think tanks in the world by The University of Pennsylvania, analyzed Canadian data on oil and natural gas transport, and found:

“In general, the transport of oil and gas is quite safe by all modes: pipeline, rail, and tanker, though there are differences between the modes that should be considered when developing infrastructure.”

Specifically, “pipelines suffer few occurrences (accidents and incidents)…between 2004 and 2015, pipelines experienced approximately 0.05 occurrences per million barrels of oil equivalent (Mboe) transported.”

Kenneth Green, Fraser Institute’s senior director of energy and natural resource studies and co-author of the study, summarizes the “evidence is clear—building new pipelines and shipping oil by tanker is the safest and most environmentally responsible way to get Canadian oil to global markets.”

In addition, the study finds that “while both pipeline and rail transportation of oil and gas are quite safe…pipelines continue to result in fewer accidents and fewer releases of product, when taking into consideration the amount of product moved.”

These statistics focus on operations.  Concerns about pipeline construction risks, especially with respect to drinking water, recently led to a halt in Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East 2 Pipeline construction that was resolved by agreement with the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Association. Discussion about risks during construction coming soon in Part II. 

To learn more, contact:

Steve Kirschner
Senior Project Consultant