The dangers of tens of thousands of miles of aging metal gas lines

Big infrastructure failures attract attention but USA Today finds that millions of Americans live near aging gas lines:

About every other day over the past decade, a gas leak in the United States has destroyed property, hurt someone or killed someone, a USA TODAY Network investigation finds. The most destructive blasts have killed at least 135 people, injured 600 and caused $2 billion in damages since 2004…

A review of federal data shows there are tens of thousands of miles of cast-iron and bare-steel gas mains lurking beneath American cities and towns — despite these pipes being a longtime target of National Transportation Safety Board accident investigators, government regulators and safety advocates.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been pushing gas utilities for more than a decade to replace aging pipes with more resilient materials like plastic, though it’s not required by law. The industry has responded by replacing thousands of miles of pipe, but a daunting amount remains. It can cost $1 million per mile, or more, to replace aging pipe, costs typically passed to customers…

Aging pipes are a high-risk example of the nation’s struggle to replace its crumbling infrastructure, a danger hidden beneath the ground until a pipe fails or is struck by something and a spark ignites a monstrous blast. Natural gas is piped into 67 million homes and at least 5 million businesses, schools and other buildings across the country, with gas distribution and service lines snaking beneath most neighborhoods in American cities.

A long and fascinating look at how gas is delivered to many homes and places underground.

Perhaps the relative lack of outcry regarding this issue is because the events take place at seemingly random times in different places. In other words, a large-scale explosion might draw more attention than the scattered events that do take place. The costs of fixing this are quite high yet given the typical levels of concern about safety, it seems like this will need to happen at some point.

Just how much damage can an exploding McMansion cause?

Investigators are looking into what caused the massive explosion of a large Long Grove home:

The scene on the Trenton Court cul-de-sac and surrounding neighborhood in Long Grove after an explosion Friday night obliterated a home was something Jeff Steingart has not experienced in 32 years of firefighting…

The force of the blast, which damaged an estimated 50 homes within a quarter mile and was heard and felt several miles away, could make finding the specific cause difficult.

“She didn’t smell it. She was in her master bathroom brushing her teeth, heard a pop and saw a fire outside her bathroom window,” he said. The woman called 911 and was walking across the street to a neighbor’s house when the explosion occurred…

About a half dozen nearby homes were severely damaged, he added, and the overall damage likely is “in the millions” of dollars. About six homes are uninhabitable.

This was quite the explosion – other reports suggested people were calling 911 from miles around. I wonder if the size of the explosion is directly related to the size of the house. In other words, a larger home has more space for a gas leak to build up so that when something sets off the explosion, there is a lot more gas and home to blow up. Even in a neighborhood with sizable yards (a Zillow listing for a recently-sold home on the same short street says the home has 0.77 acre lot), this can lead to lots of damage.

One odd thought: given the odor of natural gas, couldn’t someone design some sort of ventilation system that would detect the smell, automatically vent the home, and alert the authorities? We have smoke and radon detectors so why not natural gas? Perhaps it would be easier to build this into passive homes where the air has to be ventilated. How much cost could this really add to a million-dollar home?

Natural gas bus commercial misses that riding the bus is already helping the environment

This commercial from America’s Natural Gas Alliance highlights natural gas buses in Los Angeles. The message is that the natural gas buses are better for the environment. They may be – but it misses the point that individuals using mass transit are already helping the environment (let alone traffic congestion). So having a natural gas bus is a bonus. Perhaps we would all be better off if more people were willing to ride any kind of bus in the first place.

However, given that it is difficult to get wealthier people to ride buses, we should then ask when we might have cars powered by natural gas. If natural gas is cleaner to burn, why not reduce the emissions from cars rather than focusing on the limited number of Americans who regularly ride the bus?

(I realize the natural gas buses may just be a marketing ploy. However, it is really about helping the environment, not good PR or trying to sell more natural gas, why not use natural gas to power more things?)