Natural Gas Pipelines

There are about 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. linking production and storage sites with consumers. Within this network, there are nearly 500 natural gas pipeline incidents per year including explosions, fires, and leaks that lead to loss of life, injury, and property damage.

Aaron Baker

Jun 28, 2021 • Updated May 12, 2023 • 4 min read
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Natural gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting mainly of methane that is formed by the decomposition of organic matter.  The U.S. natural gas pipeline network consists of about 3 million miles of pipelines that link natural gas production areas and storage facilities with consumers.  The network consists of four major components: 1) gathering systems made of small-diameter (6-16”), low-pressure pipelines that move raw natural gas from the wellheads to processing plants, 2) processing plants that separate and refine the raw natural gas, 3) wide-diameter (16- 48”), high-pressure pipelines that operate within and among states to deliver natural gas to distribution centers and storage facilities, and 4) small-diameter (½-2”), low-pressure service lines used by local distribution companies to deliver gas to nearly 70 million residential and about 5 million business consumers around the country.

About half of the mainline network and a large portion of the local distribution network were installed in the 1950s and 1960s when demand for natural gas increased after World War II.  The network has continued to expand ever since, linking new production sources with consumers around the country. 

U.S. Natural Gas Mainline Pipeline Network (Gathering and Distribution Lines)

Over the last 20 years, there have been an average of nearly 300 pipeline incidents per year that have caused about 12 deaths and 55 injuries each year. The cost of these incidents that include explosions, fires, and leaks over the last three years has averaged over $800 million per year.  Equipment failure and corrosion were the most common causes of incidents associated with gathering and transmission pipelines.  For example, in 2018 a combination of equipment failure and human error led to explosions and fires that damaged 131 structures in three towns in the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.  One person was killed, 22 were injured, and thousands were forced to evacuate their homes.  Fires and explosions not originating from the pipeline and motor vehicles were the main causes of incidents involving distribution lines.  In addition to these incidents, researchers at Colorado State University have estimated that the leak rate of natural gas from the U.S. oil and gas system is 2%--enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes for a year and worth about $2 billion.

You and Natural Gas Pipelines#

Health and Safety#

Natural gas leaks and explosions are dangerous and can cause a significant number of fires.  Because natural gas is colorless and odorless, a chemical called mercaptan is added to give it a detectable rotten egg odor.  FEMA recommends that if you are inside and smell gas or hear a blowing or hissing noise, then open a window and get everyone out immediately.  Once outside, turn off the gas using the outside main valve and call 911 and the gas company from outside or a neighbor’s home.  Outside gas odors should also be reported to 911 and your local gas company immediately, and motorized vehicles and powered equipment should not be operated in the vicinity. 

When natural gas leaks, concentrated levels of methane can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, general weakness, and even loss of consciousness.  In addition, methane contributes to ground-level ozone (the main ingredient of smog) which aggravates asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Property Values#

The research on the possible effect of pipelines on property values is extensive. In general, proximity to a pipeline does not appear to affect property values.  One exception to this pattern can occur following a significant pipeline accident.  For example, researchers from Western Washington University found that a gasoline pipeline explosion near Bellingham, Washington killed three people, injured eight, and caused property values in the vicinity to decline.  The effect decreased with distance from the explosion and over time.  Properties 50 feet from the pipeline decreased in value by about 5% but at 1,000 feet the negative effect dropped to near 1%.  The researchers tracked property values following the accident and found that property values recovered by about 1% after 2 years.

What You Can Do#

Excavation damage is a leading cause of serious natural gas pipeline incidents.  Before you do any digging or excavating, call 811--the nationwide phone number that will connect you to the agency in your state that will identify buried utilities, including natural gas pipelines, on your property.  It is important to be prepared and know how to shut off your outside main valve in the event of a leak inside your home.  It is also advised to identify the location of nearby natural gas pipelines and discuss the best evacuation plan with your family members in the event you were to detect an outdoor gas leak.

AreaHub’s Knowledge Center is updated regularly and provides information drawing upon scientific studies and sources.

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