We often worry about what can happen when an oil well breaks, a capped well leaks, or a pipeline bursts. What about natural gas? Since there is no obvious sign or signal that there is trouble for anyone outside the field, does that mean we don’t have to worry about personal and environmental safety?
There are some technologies in place to prevent such disasters. In this post we’ll take a look at some of them and the general procedures in natural gas production and whether or not it is safer than oil production. We’ll also look into what the signs of a natural gas leak are and how it might affect the area in which it happens.
There are a number of safety precautions built into natural gas pipelines. Most of us know about the most basic safety measure, the shut-off valve. These are typically placed every so often along the route of a pipeline with sensors that activate when a breach occurs. While these are useful, they aren’t the only solution.
Pressure regulators and gas pressure reducing stations also help to monitor, regulate and control gas flow so that a leak is less likely to occur. This is like an extra stop-gap measure to prevent the gas from ever getting to the point that it would leak.
Unfortunately for people and the environment, while the safety measures are ostensibly better, the production methods for natural gas are not. Much of the production of natural gas is done by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal drilling involves drilling sideways into the Earth to tap into pockets of gas rather than vertical drilling which seeks to drill deeper into the Earth to tap gas reserves. Horizontal drilling can have drastic consequences on shallow water tables, topography, and sediment layers as well as cause the potential for dangerous chemical leaks into the water table.
Hydraulic fracturing has similar issues. The process uses liquids that are pressurized and then injected into bedrock to break up formations and free pockets of natural gas. Again this can cause changes to water tables, soil levels and potentially cause small-scale earthquakes.
Comparison to Oil Production
On the face of it, this seems like it would be an easier comparison to make. Of course, gas production is safer. After all, we’ve never had to clean up millions of gallons of natural gas out of water or scrub baby ducks clean of the stuff.
In truth, studies show natural gas is just as harmful as oil. Between what tapping into natural gas releases into the atmosphere, and the dangers of production, it has similar risks to that of oil.
Additionally, natural gas is not easy to detect if it is leaking apart from an odor additive that is sometimes added to it. Also, it is highly combustible, making it a potential explosion hazard. These factors combined put natural gas on par with oil in terms of environmental and safety concerns.