Report: Damaging methane gas pipeline leaks happen every 40 hours in the U.S.

Media Contacts
Sander Kushen

Public Health Advocate, CALPIRG Education Fund

Sander Kushen

Public Health Advocate, CALPIRG Education Fund

SAN BRUNO – Methane gas – commonly referred to as “natural” gas – has been piped through our communities for a century, and for just as long, it has been causing dangerous leaks. Recognizing this problem, the Biden administration announced last week it’s developing safety regulations that aim to reduce methane emissions from gas pipeline systems and the bipartisan infrastructure law provides $1 billion in funding to fix methane leaks. On Thursday, CALPIRG Education Fund, Environment California Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group released a new report that finds from 2010 through nearly the end of 2021, almost 2,600 gas pipeline incidents occurred in the United States that were serious enough to require reporting to the federal government. That’s the equivalent to one every 40 hours.

“For as long as we have used methane gas to heat and cook in our homes, it has posed a risk both to people who heat their homes with it and those who live in neighborhoods above gas pipes,” said Sander Kushen, advocate at CALPIRG. “House explosions and leaking pipelines aren’t isolated incidents – they’re the result of an energy system that pipes dangerous, explosive gas across the country and through our neighborhoods. It’s time to move away from gas in this country and toward safer, cleaner electrification and renewable energy.” 

In California, there were 229 serious gas leak incidents between 2010 and 2021, with 92 resulting in fires and 24 in an explosion. Those incidents killed 20 people and injured 89. The total costs to communities from things such as property damage, emergency services, and the value of intentionally and unintentionally released gas, totaled nearly $1 billion. These incidents also resulted in the leakage of 1.8 billion cubic feet of gas, equivalent in its effects on global warming to emissions from 160,228 passenger vehicles driven for a year. 

One of the incidents highlighted in the report is the San Bruno, Calif. pipeline explosion, a disaster that resulted in eight deaths and 58 injuries. “The natural gas system is plagued by leaks that can be fatally dangerous and are an enormous contributor to climate change. We need to transition away from natural gas as quickly as possible, for our own health and safety and for the health of the planet,” said Sen. Josh Becker, of San Bruno.

Assemblymember Kevin Mullin of San Bruno said the disaster should remind Californians why it’s important to transition away from burning methane gas in residential areas. “It’s time to transition to cleaner, safer forms of energy so we can protect our residents and our environment while also avoiding the significant financial strain created in the aftermath of these serious events,” said Assemblymember Mullin.   

The serious pipeline incidents addressed in the report represent just a fraction of the leaks experienced in the production, transportation and burning of gas. Smaller gas leaks are rife in urban areas, while large methane leaks from oil and gas production threaten the climate. A study from 2018 found that leaks from gas lines over the previous two decades had nearly doubled the climate impact of gas. In addition, some serious gas explosions that have caused death or injury are not included in the data as they did not occur in the pipeline system.

“Leaks, fires and explosions are reminders that transporting methane gas is dangerous business,” said Tony Dutzik, associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group and lead author of the report. “The incidents included in this report were caused by a wide variety of factors, from operator errors to equipment failures, and excavation damage to natural causes. Fully protecting the public requires us to reduce our dependence on gas.”

The report recommends that the U.S. stop relying on methane gas for home heating and cooking as well as electricity generation. Instead, policy makers should incentivize and accelerate the transition to all-electric buildings and renewable sources of energy, which are cleaner and safer for communities. During the transition, the report recommends that gas infrastructure investments focus on fixing leaks. 

“When rooftop solar panels can power an induction cooktop or electric heat pump, it becomes increasingly unacceptable to saddle society with the risks associated with pumping methane into our homes and throughout our communities,” said Laura Deehan, state director at Environment California Research & Policy Center. “It’s time to leave explosive and polluting fossil fuels like methane behind and embrace a future powered by 100% renewable energy.”