Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas pipeline incidents

Our research consortium conducted a study quantifying GHG emissions from natural gas pipeline incidents in the United States and Canada from the 1980s to 2021, using Monte Carlo simulation methods.
Published in Earth & Environment

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Although pipelines are typically concealed underground and may not be directly observed by many individuals, their critical role as the lifeblood of the global energy system cannot be understated. They serve as a vital infrastructure supporting industrial production and residential livelihoods. However, the environmental challenges faced by pipelines should not be overlooked. The intricate and diverse environmental conditions surrounding pipelines, combined with the potential presence of moisture and sulfides within the conveyed media, elevate concerns regarding corrosion-induced perforation (as illustrated in Fig. 1). It is crucial to recognize that incidents in pipelines can arise from various factors beyond corrosion, including operational errors and material failures.

Fig. 1 Corrosion-induced perforation in pipelines.

In the event of a natural gas pipeline incident, where the release of natural gas, predominantly composed of methane, occurs into the atmosphere (as depicted in Fig. 2), the implications for global warming mitigation are highly detrimental. The impact surpasses that resulting from the combustion and subsequent conversion of natural gas into carbon dioxide emitted into the air. Methane, as a potent greenhouse gas, possesses a significantly higher heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide. Thus, the unintended release of natural gas through pipeline incidents contributes to the exacerbation of global warming and undermines efforts to mitigate climate change.

Fig. 2 Natural gas release in pipeline incidents in the United States from 2010 to 2020.

Several scholars have previously conducted inventories of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the operational phase of natural gas pipelines. However, it is noteworthy that GHG emissions resulting from pipeline incidents have often been overlooked in these assessments. While incidents involving natural gas pipelines may be infrequent, their potential environmental impact cannot be disregarded. One notable incident that highlights the significance of such emissions occurred in 2022 with the leakage incident in the Nord Stream pipeline. The release of GHGs during this event has been subject to extensive calculations by numerous scholars, with some suggesting it to be potentially the largest recorded GHG emissions event to date. The implications of such an incident are far-reaching, particularly in terms of exacerbating global warming and its associated consequences. Therefore, recognizing and addressing the GHG emissions resulting from natural gas pipeline incidents is crucial for comprehensive environmental assessment and effective mitigation strategies.

To address this pressing issue, our esteemed research consortium, comprising scholars from Southeast University, University of Calgary, University of Birmingham, and Southwest University of Science and Technology, embarked on a comprehensive study. Our research aimed to quantify GHG emissions resulting from natural gas pipeline incidents in the United States and Canada spanning the period from the 1980s to 2021. To accomplish this, we employed the robust Monte Carlo simulation methods, which allowed us to analyze the complex and uncertain nature of these emissions.

The outcomes of our study underscore the urgent need for pipeline companies to enhance their incident databases, adopting a more thorough and comprehensive approach. These upgraded databases would serve as invaluable resources in facilitating integrity management practices that are aligned with climate-conscious objectives. By expanding the scope of incident reporting, capturing and analyzing relevant data, and applying advanced analytical techniques, pipeline companies can gain deeper insights into the GHG emissions associated with their operations.

The development of more comprehensive incident databases will offer numerous benefits. Firstly, it will enable a more accurate quantification of GHG emissions resulting from pipeline incidents, aiding in the assessment of their environmental impact. This information can then be utilized to inform policy decisions and regulatory frameworks aimed at reducing emissions and mitigating climate change. Secondly, the availability of detailed incident data will enhance the ability of pipeline companies to identify areas of improvement and implement targeted measures to prevent and mitigate incidents. Moreover, the integration of incident data into risk assessment models will enhance the overall integrity management of pipelines, leading to safer and more environmentally sustainable operations.

By advocating for the establishment of robust incident databases and encouraging pipeline companies to prioritize climate-conscious integrity management practices, our research consortium aims to contribute to the collective efforts in addressing the urgent challenges posed by GHG emissions. Through collaboration and knowledge sharing, we aspire to foster a sustainable and resilient energy infrastructure that minimizes environmental impacts and aligns with global climate goals.

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