Natural gas may be cheap, but how safe is it? (Remembering San Bruno)

On September 9, 2010, a little more than two years ago, a San Bruno, California neighborhood was rocked by a huge explosion caused by a rupture in a 30 inch natural gas pipeline. That explosion woke up the natural gas pipeline industry and its regulators and made the public slightly more aware of the dangers associated with piping flammable, explosive vapors at high pressures in underground pipes that are often located under heavily populated areas.

Platts Energy Week recently interviewed Don Santa, the president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGA) and Bizunesh Scott. a former official from the Department of Transportation, which regulates pipeline safety.

You can learn more about the event, the analysis of its causes, and the prescriptions for attempting to prevent future accidents by reading the Pacific Gas and Electric Company Natural Gas Transmission Pipeline Rupture and Fire San Bruno, California
September 9, 2010 – Accident Report NTSB/PAR-11/01 PB2011-916501

Here is a quote from the Executive Summary of the report:

The rupture produced a crater about 72 feet long by 26 feet wide. The section of pipe that ruptured, which was about 28 feet long and weighed about 3,000 pounds, was found 100 feet south of the crater. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company estimated that 47.6 million standard cubic feet of natural gas was released. The released natural gas ignited, resulting in a fire that destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70. Eight people were killed, many were injured, and many more were evacuated from the area.

Here is an even more thought provoking quote from the accident synopsis.

The rupture occurred at 6:11 p.m.; almost immediately, the escaping gas from the ruptured pipe ignited and created an inferno. The first 911 call was received within seconds. Officers from the San Bruno Police Department arrived on scene about 6:12 p.m. Firefighters at the San Bruno Fire Department heard and saw the explosion from their station, which was about 300 yards from the rupture site. Firefighters were on scene about 6:13 p.m. More than 900 emergency responders from the city of San Bruno and surrounding jurisdictions executed a coordinated emergency response, which included defensive operations, search and evacuation,
and medical operations. Once the flow of natural gas was interrupted, firefighting operations continued for 2 days. Hence, the emergency response by the city of San Bruno was prompt and appropriate.

However, PG&E took 95 minutes to stop the flow of gas and to isolate the rupture site—a response time that was excessively long and contributed to the extent and severity of property damage and increased the life-threatening risks to the residents and emergency responders. The National Transportation Safety Board found that PG&E lacks a detailed and comprehensive procedure for responding to large-scale emergencies such as a transmission pipeline break, including a defined command structure that clearly assigns a single point of leadership and allocates specific duties to supervisory control and data acquisition staff and other involved employees. PG&E’s supervisory control and data acquisition system limitations caused delays in pinpointing the location of the break. The use of either automatic shutoff valves or remote control valves would have reduced the amount of time taken to stop the flow of gas.

How bad might the accident have been if there was not a fire station just a few hundred yards away?

About Rod Adams

16 Responses to “Natural gas may be cheap, but how safe is it? (Remembering San Bruno)”

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  1. Jeff S says:

    It seems to me that, in the public mind, somehow an accident which immediately kills a dozen people, is worse than a nuclear accident which might, in 30 years, cause a dozen people to get cancer. I’m not really sure why a lot of people look at it that way, but that is the distinct impression I get. I think we need to very publically beat on that drum – that a dozen cancers and possible deaths in 20 years, is not somehow worse than a dozen deaths instantly when a gas pipeline breaks, or any other industrial accident occurs. It’s not scarier – hell, I’d *rather* have another 20 years after the accident, if the accident is going to kill me, than to die instantly.

    • Jeff S says:

      Correction – It seems to me that, in the public mind, somehow an accident which immediately kills a dozen people, is somehow better than a nuclear accident which might, in 30 years, cause a dozen people to get cancer.

    • Curtis says:

      Jeff, it’s no much of a mystery to me.

      It comes back to basic human nature, and our ability to deal with tragedy, fear, and the unknown.

      With a Natural Gas pipeline blow out, it’s a here and now event. It happens, those who get hurt or die do so in the moment, or shortly after. Once the fires are out… the “Event” is over, and those directly effected can then deal with the after effects as they see fit. They can mourn/re-build etc. Those that are not directly effected, like those in the next town over, or across the world, can look at the event, and pat themselves on the back for not being there, and go on with their lives.

      But with something like a Fukashima, it different psychologically. The event happens, and yes no one is directly hurt… but… those directly in the line of fire, cannot re-build right away… they may have to wait years to get back to their homes for a variety of reasons that they will likely never understand, be it Political Stuntary, to true contamination issues. It’s all over a local Farmers head. Now add in the knowledge that say 30 people will eventually die of cancer from that radiation… Who is that 30… is it you.. is it your neighbor, is it a random Shop Keeper 3000 miles away in a country that ends in Stan, no one can know. As Humans we programed to Fear the unknown. No one in the effected area can KNOW that they will not be one of the 30 that eventually gets tapped with the Big C.

      So in the end… when the pipe blows you know your fine or not right then….. rather than having to wait 20 years to know.

      I don’t know if i explained that well… I only slept through one semester of psychology, so I don’t claim to be an expert, but that’s how I observe peoples reactions to events.

      • Daniel says:

        @ Curtis,

        Why is it again that people in Fukushima have to wait years before going back to rebuild ? Not trivial amounts of radiation I hope. Nor contamination.

        How long do you think the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki waited before rebuilding ?

        Look at those cities today.

        • John Englert says:

          Would you rather build a house on a nuclear test site with a surface interacting fireball or one with the device suspended from a balloon. That’s the difference between communities near the Fukushima reactors and the two cities that were atomic bomb targets.

          • Daniel says:

            In both cases I think measurements are in order.

            Obviously, in the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they were not an issue as rebuilding took place rather quickly. (Bomb survivors are living longer than those not exposed to the bombs’ radiation.)

            For Fukushima, measurements would indicate there are no major issues except for a couple of hot spots.

            This is the message that should be carried.

            I think that there is something to be drawn from the Fukushima reaction to that of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

      • Joris van Dorp says:

        Sure natural gas is dangerous and such disasters happen, but this damage is small compared to the economic value of using natural gas. It seems to be worth the occasional human or technical error, just like nuclear.

        But Rod your point is clear that natural gas is more dangerous than nuclear power. That is already a documented fact as you know. For the public at large, fear of nuclear is inconsistent with having no fear of natural gas. I guess that is a point you are making.

        But it would be better if people feared neither nuclear or natural gas. The economic cost of such fear is a waste, and it is no good for the public to have such fear. Both nuclear and natural gas are very important energy sources and hating either or both of them is just biting the hand that feeds you in the end, I think.

        • Joel Riddle says:

          The NEI Smartbrief today contained a very apt quote:

          “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.”
          -Corrie ten Boom

          Simply substitute worry with fear, and it has the same meaning. It is very apt in regards to people’s irrational fears related to nuclear power.

      • Bruce A Fouraker says:

        The Fukushima accident evacuation may have been valid for a week or two. After that time it is strictly political. Most of the area evacuated received a dosage of 240 millirem. That dosage would be received by an airline crew routinely flying cross country (in the US) 120 times (about average for one year).

        Even the small heavily contaminated area with a dosage of 22,000 Millirem (22 REM) would increase cancer risk at most by 7 to 25 cases in a population of 10,000. This is spread over 40 years in population that may normally have 2500 cancer cases during that time period.

        The group that received six times as much radiation at Hiroshima or Nagisaki (sic?) had one percent increase in cancer cases during the 33 years following the bombings. This is about 25 cases per 10,000 population.

        I would fear living next to a normally operating coal plant. The death rate from the pollution caused by a 1000 MWe coal plant is about 45 cases per year. I would fear this much more than the accident at Fukushima.

  2. donb says:

    @Jeff S – everyone knows that a natural gas explosion causes only mild death, while radiation from a nuclear power plants causes severe death ;-).

    The deaths caused by natural gas explosions are so mild that this pipeline explosion last week that killed 30 people, across the boarder from McAllen, Texas, was hardly reported here in the USA.

  3. John Tucker says:

    In my best Gollum voice: “so clean, so safe, gas, my precious.”

    A few of the reported gas incidents from the last day or so in the US involving more than a single dwelling leak and/or first responders:

    14 people treated in Medway High School gas leak ( )

    Gas leak causes evacuation at San Andreas Elementary ( )

    Gas leak sends May School students home
    ( )

    Orangetown Cops Nearly Hit by Car at Scene of Nyack Gas Leak ( )

    Gas Leak Overwhelms Mendham Construction Worker ( )

    FD: Backhoe hits gas line in Chandler ( )

    Mother, newborn twins homeless after explosion (|topnews|bc|large )

    Everyday is like that, fortunately most disasters are avoided but people are seriously injured sometimes and die.

  4. Steve Aplin says:

    Explosions and fires are only the most spectacular instances of the dangers posed by natural gas. (Oddly, even these spectacular instances don’t warrant extensive news coverage.) Something like 500 people in the U.S. die each year by carbon monoxide poisoning, often because of poorly functioning pilot lights in gas stoves, fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, and clothes dryers. Who knows how many beyond the 500 killed have suffered and continue to suffer permanent brain damage.

    Why do you think every fire department in every major city strongly recommends CO detectors in every home, in addition to smoke detectors?

    All indoor appliances should be electric-powered. That could be made economically viable by deliberately choosing cheap sources of electricity, like nuclear.

    • John Tucker says:

      I should have been thinking about that as well. Very very good point:

      Mortality and morbidity from acute, unintentional, non-fire-related CO poisoning is a
      substantial public health problem in the United States, where CO intoxication is the most
      common cause of unintentional poisoning.

      An estimated 15,200 persons seek medical attention annually in an emergency department (ED) or miss at least 1 day of work due to exposure to CO.
      ( )

      • Bruce A Fouraker says:

        I know personally how CO can kill. A young lady who worked with me at a law firm had just purchased a new house. Her and her husband used a space heater in their bedroom. Her son came into the room and woke her up, he could not wake up her husband. She was treated for CO poisoning, her husband was decleared dead and luckily her son was not harmed.

        This is the type of tragedy that occurs from space heaters. This same type of poisoning can occur if the vents on natural gas appliances and heaters get blocked/clogged.

        All technology can cause deaths; however, lack of technology/energy causes many more premature deaths. If want to see the differences in premature deaths from different activities and energy sources given in man hours/days/months /years, you should read the works of Bernard Cohen (Cohan?).

  5. Mike H says:

    With 305,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines (not to mention an order of magnitude more distribution lines), natural gas really isn’t all that dangerous. Its not really fair to compare with the nuclear industry because the regulations are so much tighter on the nuke side and if applied to natural gas piping, costs would necessarily soar. This wouldn’t only impact electricity prices, but also everything made from natural gas feedstock and/or made with process heat from natural gas burners. Like everything else in life, it’s a tradeoff.