onstruction boom of pipelines carrying explosive oil and natural gas from “fracking” fields to market — pipes that are bigger and more dangerous than their predecessors -– poses a safety threat in rural areas, where they sometimes run within feet or yards of homes with little or no safety oversight, an NBC News investigation has found.
The rapidly expanding network of pipes, known as “gathering lines,” carry oil and gas from fracking fields in many parts of the country to storage facilities and major “transmission lines.” They are subject to the same risks – corrosion, earthquakes, sabotage and construction accidents — as transmission lines. But unlike those pipelines, about 90 percent of gathering lines do not fall under federal safety or construction regulations because they run through rural areas, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2012.
Safety advocates and regulators have called for new regulations on the pipelines, but energy industry interests have pushed back. Any changes could be years away, if they happen at all, according to an analysis from the Congressional Research Service released early this month.
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The risk didn’t become apparent to Dave and Cheryl Goble, who live in rural Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, until long after a pipeline company land man knocked on their door in 2010 and offered to pay them to run a natural gas pipe across their property.
“We’d never do it again, money or no money.”
The Gobles signed a contract after being shown a plan where the line would run straight across their property, some distance from the house. But the pipe was ultimately buried in a trench that curves around their home, within feet of their porch, shaking their sense of well-being: If it were to fail, they now realize, their home could be destroyed.
“We’d never do it again, money or no money,” said Cheryl Goble, 53, who grew up just down the dirt road where she still lives. “They think they can do anything that they want to. As long as you sign papers, they don’t care about you afterward. They’re gone.”
The lack of oversight on rural gathering lines – historically low-pressure steel lines up to 12 inches around – was long justified by the perception that the risk of accidents was minimal. But the fracking boom has led to construction of new gathering lines that are both bigger and under higher pressure, making them virtually identical to transmission lines.
240,000 miles already laid, more on the way
More than 240,000 miles of gathering lines already exist in the U.S., moving oil and natural gas from wells and nearby storage areas to processing plants and transmission lines. And pipeline companies are rushing to get lines in the ground to meet the boom brought by the growth in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, which has made it possible to recover oil and gas from hard shale formations. Some 414,000 additional miles of gathering lines could be built by 2035, found a 2011 report by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
KEITH SRAKOCIC / AP FILE
A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, in 2012.
The Marcellus shale field, which extends across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, accounts for 40 percent of the shale gas being produced in the U.S., according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Much of that is coming from the more than 7,000 wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2004. Infrastructure to move it lags behind, so industry representatives arrive daily at the doors of rural Pennsylvanians, pipeline contracts in hand.
The Gobles say when they signed the contract for about $25,000, they were told the pipe would be laid some distance from their house. Then plans changed. The company ultimately placed it so it skirted the corner of the house and bent in an L-shape behind it. There was nothing the Gobles could do.
“The pipeline people might have been good to other people, but we don’t agree with what they did down here,” said Cheryl Goble. “I thought it was a trick.”
Chief Gathering, the company that built to the pipeline, referred NBC News’ request for comment to Regency Energy Partners, which purchased the line earlier this year. Regency did not address the Gobles’ claims directly, but said the company was “committed to the safe construction and operation of its assets” and works “honestly and respectfully with landowners.”