Natural gas is one of the main energy sources in the United States. It accounts for over 25% of all U.S. energy consumption and 75% of residential and commercial energy consumption. But according to a recent report in the USA Today, the infrastructure that transports natural gas throughout the country is dangerously weak in key areas.
Since 2004, gas leaks from failing pipes have cost at least $2 billion in damages, injured 600 people, and killed 135 more. A large reason for this problem is the more than 85,000 miles of gas pipes made from cast-iron and bare-steel. For more than a decade, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has advised the use of resilient plastic in gas pipelines. Gas utility companies have replaced thousands of miles of pipes but thousands more remain.
Costs of Replacing Infrastructure
The costs of replacing existing pipes are over $1 million per mile on average. In busy cities, where a majority of the pipes are located, the costs can be over $3 million per mile. Removing a pipe requires ripping up streets and sidewalks and dealing with other pipes and underground infrastructure. This can lead to streets being shut down causing additional congestion, delays, and indirect costs.
Heavily populated regions of the Northeast contain a large majority of the dangerous pipelines. New York, Boston, and Detroit alone contain one-third of the cast-iron main pipes. It’s estimated that replacing the cast-iron and bare-steel pipes in Manhattan and Westchester County, New York alone would cost $10 billion. Since the costs are largely passed on to consumers, replacing this infrastructure could lead to significantly higher electricity and heating bills.
Costs of Not Replacing Infrastructure
But the costs of not replacing the pipes could be even higher. For example, consider the situation that occurred in East Harlem on March 12 of this year. An explosion—confirmed to have been caused by a gas leak from a cast-iron pipe—leveled two apartment buildings. Debris from the explosion put the Metro-North Railroad out of commission for most of the day; a large sinkhole formed in front of the apartment buildings; the shock from the explosion could be felt several blocks away, and blew out the windows of nearby buildings. The economic disruption caused by an explosion of this sort is at least as significant as the disruption caused by replacing the failed pipe.
More significant in this case is the loss of human life. The explosion killed seven and injured approximately 70 more. What value should we assign to the lives lost? What value should we assign to the pain and suffering of victims who survived but were injured? Ongoing litigation is currently trying to answer these difficult questions.
How fast is fast enough?
The issue with replacing the existing gas pipe infrastructure isn’t about whether or not it should be done; there is general agreement that fixing aging pipes is necessary. Gas utilities use a variety of factors (the size of the pipe, how much pressure the pipe handles, the history of previous pipe leaks, etc.) to determine what sections pose the highest risk, and actively seek to replace high risk sections. The issue is about how quickly the repairs are being made.
Some neighborhoods have no cast-iron or bare-steel gas pipes. Some neighborhoods are projected to be free of cast-iron and bare-steel gas pipes within 10 to 20 years. Some neighborhoods aren’t expected to be completely rid of these dangers for 50 to 60 years. By that time, some of these pipes could be pushing 100 years old.
Only time will tell if this pace is sufficient to prevent more catastrophic explosions. For their part, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is continuing to push for gas utility companies to increase their pace and pressuring states into adopting legislation to assist in the process.