It was an extraordinary move this week, Atmos Energy shutting off natural gas to 2,800 homes in North Dallas for 2 to 3 weeks. In that area, there have been two fires, an explosion and one fatality.
With lots of people on edge, I wanted to know if natural gas is safe?
For answers, I'm looking at federal databases that track natural gas safety and interviewing Professor Rob Jackson, a natural gas expert at Stanford University.
“Is natural gas safe?” I asked Jackson.
“Almost all the time, it is. Accidents are very rare. But they happen,” said Jackson.
Here's some context on accidents from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the US Department of Transportation.
Since 2005, in the US, an average of 10 gas customers are killed each year, 43 people are injured at a cost of $424 million.
“When it's not human error, the number one predictor of an accident is old infrastructure. Old pipelines,” Jackson said.
Atmos has a large service area. Federal records show Atmos has almost 32,000 miles of pipeline. Some of it is old. For example, Atmos has 3,555 miles of what's called uncoated, steel pipe that's prone to corrosion. That's the second most in the country.
“How much risk is acceptable?” I asked Jackson.
“No level is acceptable if you're the person of the neighborhood affected. But we do assume risk,” he said. “It's very, very small. These accidents are extremely uncommon. And they are less common today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. That's good news,” said Jackson.
In the big picture, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 61 million Americans have natural gas piped into their homes, compared to those averages of 10 deaths and 48 injuries.
As we're seeing in Dallas, there are serious risks to natural gas. But if you look at it another way, you’re about five times more likely to be killed by lightening than a natural gas explosion.
So, statistically speaking, natural gas is safe.
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