Last month, Minneapolis witnessed a tragedy when a natural gas explosion at a private grade school killed two and injured nine others. The natural gas leak was caused by contractors working on the building’s piping when it ignited and caused multiple floors of the school to collapse and trap those inside under rubble. From the Chicago Tribune:
“We just started digging,” Meskan said. He said that after police and firefighters arrived, “we kept digging, and gas, gas was going. Fire was going. And it’s like, ‘we’re not going back until we get this guy out of here.’ And we got him out, and they got him on a stretcher.”
These types of accidents might not seem common, but data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) reveals that multiple accidents happen every day. In 2016, there were 635 pipeline related incidences that resulted in 17 deaths, 84 injuries, and over $300 million dollars’ worth of damage.
Natural Gas Pipeline Incidents (2000-2016)
Each incident may not be as devastating as an explosion at a grade school, but the fact remains that leaking gas causes far more problems than we hear about on a regular basis, especially considering that there are about 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline throughout the United States. However, these explosions are only part of the problem.
Asphyxiation and Combustion
Although natural gas explosions make the headlines, one of the main dangers presented by natural gas is asphyxiation. Natural gas is non-toxic, but it displaces the oxygen concentration in tight spaces which can lead to suffocation. It is odorless when mined, so mercaptan is added so that it can be detected by smell if there is a leak. Therefore, if you get the distinct smell of rotten eggs and are in a basement, room, garage, or any enclosed space, you are at a much higher risk of suffocating than if the leak was outside or in a ventilated area.
However, this does not mean that natural gas igniting is not a real threat. One of the first major explosive accidents involving natural gas occurred in 1937 when a natural gas leak at a school in New London, Texas caused a massive explosion, killing almost 300 students and teachers within the building. As we have unfortunately seen by the most recent incident, these types of accident still happen almost a century later, albeit with less severe results.
Aside from the most obvious two dangers, the largest threat posed by natural gas leaks is the contribution to climate change. Natural gas is a clean burning gas because it produces much less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels like oil or coal. But, that assumes that it is indeed being combusted. If it leaks directly into the atmosphere, natural gas is mostly methane, which as a greenhouse gas is almost twice as potent as carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that about 25% of global warming today is due to methane, a number that will only increase as more natural gas leaks into the atmosphere.
And according to Minneapolis personal injury lawyer, Randy Knutson, who has seen many accidents happen in Minnesota over the past twenty years, this is something that is happening constantly throughout the entire country. Since most gas leaks do not pose an immediate threat and would cost too much time and money to repair, utility companies will ignore or leave gas leaks unfixed for years. A 2015 study estimated that natural gas facilities lose 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year, a figure that is eight times higher than estimates used by the EPA. So even if these leaks may not pose an immediate threat, in the long run, the impact on climate change could be irreversible and almost nothing is currently being done to prevent it.
The Threat Moving Forward
Although natural gas explosions are both shocking and tragic, the real threat of natural gas leakage comes in the form of weather severity caused by global warming, which could easily outpace deaths caused by combustion or suffocation each year. While it may be premature to attribute the current strength of hurricane Harvey and Irma to human related activities, there is a link between global warming and the strength of storms that cannot be ignored. Warmer water temperatures lead to stronger tropical cyclones, and by some estimates anthropogenic warming will cause an increase in strength by 2-11%. Coupled with increasing sea levels, coastal flooding, and intense heat waves, natural gas is contributing to a problem that has the potential to seriously impact the planet as a whole. Natural gas is an important fuel for today’s society but its effects will need to be mitigated both today and for future generations to come.