Natural gas mains made of steel, like the one that apparently failed in Thursday’s deadly California explosion, are considered especially susceptible to corrosion and leaking, leading regulators in some states to consider replacing them.
In general, gas pipelines are safer than ever: “Distribution incidents” like leaks, fires and explosions have declined sharply since 1970, when many utilities began switching over to plastic pipes, which are less vulnerable to corrosion, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Deaths in such incidents have declined in turn, from 246 in the 1970s to 120 in the 2000s.
But while the majority of natural gas pipes are plastic, about 60 percent of the nation’s 475,000 miles of larger gas mains — those wider than 16 inches in diameter — are steel, according to the Natural Gas Supply Association. That’s because steel pipes can better withstand the pressurization used to move gas efficiently through large pipes. That strength doesn’t necessarily translate to safety — federal figures show that steel pipes are implicated in more natural gas incidents than those made of plastic materials.
If you own a gas grill, you probably already deal with the main vulnerabilities of steel pipes. Steel corrodes, and because it’s rigid, it can crack under stress. As older steel gas mains have started giving way, explosions — some of them deadly — have led regulators in several states to reconsider whether they’re the best option.
Shouldn’t we be investing in safer infrastructure, improving the lives and safety of Americans?