I would agree with you except for the fact that the standards for gas pipeline inspections are not very high. In fact, I would venture to say that there are no standards requiring continuing inspection for home piping after it is installed. Over time, there are several different ways that piping can be damaged or corroded in ways that can cause leaks and hazards. That is why natural gas is distributed with an additive that gives a distinctive odor - as long as people pay attention to that warning, they are probably going to be okay.
The damage would be limited in the case of a home leak - though some homes (think about apartment high rises) are closer together than others.
There is a different and much larger scale issue, however, with regard to natural gas transmission pipelines.
There have been a number of warning explosions that have already caused human suffering and death, but the warnings have not been followed with the kind of increased scrutiny that may be merited. Often, the gas pipeline companies have been able to ward off inspection requirements by talking to politicians and regulators about the high cost of implementing them.
These are high pressure, high capacity piping systems that occasionally get dinged, corroded, eroded, etc. They carry a high energy gas that is quite hazardous if allowed to accumulate to a certain concentration, especially if exposed to a spark source.
I, for one, will never forget the plight of the family that was camping near Carlsbad NM on August 19, 2000. A pipeline running near their riverside camp site exploded, causing a huge crater and killing all twelve members of the family - eventually. Two family members died very painful deaths after being burned over a large portion of their bodies.
The damage to the pipeline (owned and operated by El Paso Natural Gas Co.) was at least as big a culprit as Enron in the energy crisis experienced by California that winter, since the pipe represented about 1/3 of the import capacity for the state and it required about 6-9 months to repair/reroute the pipe. The tight supplies are what allowed the market manipulation in the first place.
However, you never find any anti-gas group saying something like "remember Carlsbad" or commemorating the memory of the victims. You cannot also point to any change in direction or regulation of the industry as a result of the warning that was far more deadly to the general public than was TMI.
Here is a reference that I saved describing the accident: (It came off of AOL's news service, and gives LCG as the original source. I no longer remember what LCG stands for.)
Last Pipeline Victim Dies
LCG, Sept. 6, 2000—Twenty-five-year-old Amanda Smith, who lost her husband, children and in- laws in a New Mexico natural gas pipeline explosion on August 19, became the 12th fatality of the fiery blast when she succumbed to burns yesterday in a Lubbock, Texas hospital.
Twelve members of two families on a fishing trip had camped along the Pecos River, not far from Carlsbad Caverns, when a pre-dawn eruption of a pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas Co. engulfed them in flame. Ten persons were killed outright and Smith and her father-in-law were taken in critical condition to University Medical Center in Lubbock. The father-in-law died two days after the explosion.
El Paso Natural Gas said last month the pipeline had been inspected a year ago and could not explain the cause of the rupture in the 50-year-old conduit. "Pipeline doesn't have a life span as long as it's well maintained," maintained company spokesman Mel Scott.
The federal Office of Pipeline Safety warned El Paso Natural Gas in a letter dated March 27, 1997, that company technicians had not been properly instructed in the operation of an anti-corrosion system that protects buried pipelines from corrosion caused by natural electrolysis.
National Transportation Board investigators say they found corrosion inside the killer pipeline that had eaten half-way through the pipeline wall in places, but added that their investigation could take up to a year to pinpoint the cause of the tragedy.
On February 11, 2003 the National Transportation Safety Board issued its findings in NTSB report number PB2003-916501. If you are interested in reading the report and following the actions that were actually implemented, you can find some information by entering that report number in a Google search. (The report itself is at http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2003/PAR0301.pdf)
One of the more interesting documents that I found in my search was titled Transmission Pipelines and Land Use Issues: A Risk-Informed Approach which is available at
That report gives quite a few recommendations, but I have been unable to determine if any of them were implemented.
Bottom line - all large scale energy systems are potentially hazardous and need good design engineering, sufficient rules and operators with a safety culture. Unfortunately, it often seems to me that the "cost be damned" approach that is applied to nuclear power is generally not equitably applied to other power sources, which leaves risk that is not adequately addressed or understood.
Editor, Atomic Insights
On Jun 2, 2006, at 12:07 PM, Bill Garland wrote:
I understand the sentiment but I don't worry about the gas line into my house any more than I do worry about the other managed risks at my home. I suspect there are more electrical related deaths than gas related deaths. No one was hurt in the Montreal incident. So I assume we can manage the risks of any of these technologies. If the overall cost gets too high because of the safety features, then it won't be used. At any rate, the big driving factor for using gas, oil, etc for heating is efficiency. My high efficiency gas furnace is 97% efficient I think. Why not, given that heat transfer can be 100% efficient in principle. But if you use a heat source to do work (ie pump electrons up hill) the heat engine efficiency is typically 30 to 40%. Using electricity is quite an inefficient way to heat a house. It does make sense to use electricity to run a heat pump, though, if the pipes can be economically installed in your back yard.