According to a recent Houston Chronicle investigation, more than half of the major natural gas transmission lines in Texas were laid more than 40 years ago and are “vulnerable to failure.” In Texas, there is are nearly 46,000 miles of transmission pipe and, according to federal records, more than 25,000 miles are older than 1970. Some of the pipe dates back to the Great Depression. According to pipeline experts, and not surprisingly, older pipelines have inferior properties that make them more likely to fail.
What is the risk? In San Bruno, California, just earlier this year in September, a natural gas transmission line exploded, killing 8 people and destroying dozens of homes. In Texas, these thousands of miles of transmission pipeline carry natural gas and hazardous materials right below our most populous cities. These pipes run beneath our streets, schools, and homes. Again, there are nearly 46,000 miles of this pipe, just in Texas. The risk is clearly substantial.
What is the problem? Federal authorities were issuing warnings over 20 years ago regarding the use of pipelines built with lower-quality welding techniques, which were widely used in pipe factories prior to 1970. The concern is with the integrity of the pipes themselves and whether they are corroding and cracking. The corrosion and cracking allows the gas and substances to escape the pipelines and potentially cause an explosion. Also a problem with older pipelines is the age of the protective coating, which can actually make the pipes more susceptible to corrosion. With regards to the newer pipes, the industry is relying on “a super fusion-bonded epoxy coating.” However, about 56% of Texas’ pipelines are older than 1970 and do not have this new technology.
Currently in Texas, the Texas Railroad Commission regulates pipeline safety and has imposed more stringent inspection requirements on pipeline companies than the federal government or states like California. This provides some comfort. In fact, the Texas Railroad Commission is currently considering even stricter regulations. With new pipe costing about $1 million to $1.5 million a mile, Texas pipeline operators are not going to simply replace all their pipelines and willingly inspect all the thousands of miles of pipe. Unless new regulations are passed into law, we all need to be aware of the danger lurking below.