Transporting Natural Gas: A Primer

Have you ever wondered how to transport natural gas? Chances are, all of the political discussion about pipelines, drilling, fracking, and more has increased your awareness of the issue. Just in the last few months, controversial studies have come out both in support of and against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to help transport natural gas to meet the needs of the mid-Atlantic. Despite the demand for natural gas in so many areas, many individuals still have little knowledge about the process in which it arrives to their region. Learning about the safest ways to transport natural gas, though, will help you develop an educated, knowledgeable opinion about the issues.

Why We Need Natural Gas

Understanding the need for natural gas can help determine why the hydrocarbon is so important. As a fossil fuel, the creation of natural gas began millions of years ago when microscopic plants and animals living in the oceans absorbed energy and stored it as carbon molecules. As these creatures died and became buried under sediments, the heat and pressure rose, creating natural gas or natural oil. Now, natural gas heats around 56 million households, is the primary fuel for water heating in the U.S., and is a leading fuel for cooking. It’s also used by transportation companies to reduce emissions from their fleets; right now, there are about 150,000 natural gas vehicles in the U.S. and about 15.2 million in the world.

In the U.S., Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming are the leaders, producing more than half of the country’s natural gas. To provide this important fuel to so many households, it’s important to safely and efficiently transport natural gas from these states.


More than Moving: The Importance of the Pipelines

If you want to learn how to transport natural gas, you need to also take into account the importance of storing the resource; if the natural gas will not be immediately used, it needs to be properly stored in a secure facility.

The natural gas transportation system is complex network of underground pipelines. A variety of different materials and sizes of pipelines start from the source of the natural gas and take it to its final destination.

  • Gathering pipelines are very small, usually less than 18 inches in diameter, that have low pressure — about 715 psi. They are normally placed about four feet deep, because they need more frequent care. These pipelines are responsible for carrying the raw, unodorized gas, and in that state, it can be highly corrosive and impact the integrity of the pipeline in a matter of a few years.
  • Interstate pipelines carry the natural gas long distances within states or across state borders. They are large, steel pipes, typically at least 10 inches in diameter, and can have a varied pressure, carrying the unodorized gas at anywhere from 200 to 1,500 psi.
  • Transmission pipelines are usually between six and 48 inches, with the mainline transmission pipelines and interstate pipelines much larger than the lateral transmission pipelines that carry natural gas between mainline transmission pipes.
  • Distribution pipelines carry the odorized gas at low pressures, between .3 and 200 psi, and are small- to medium-sized. They take the gas from the high-pressure transmission pipelines to the low-pressure service pipelines.
  • Service pipelines are very narrow and low-pressure; typically, they are less than two inches in diameter and 6 psi. These copper, plastic, or steel pipes carry the natural gas to individual customers.

Are Pipelines Safe?

Pipeline operators are always looking to improve their system to transport natural gas. They are regularly monitoring and specializing their equipment to ensure that the systems are efficient and secure. This can include the care of the actual pipelines and the seams to connect large holes to the seamless small-diameter pipes that are regularly tested to guarantee that it can withstand the pressure and strengths needed for safe transport. Compressor stations are located every 40 to 100 miles along pipelines and use turbines, motors or engines to compress the molecules of the natural gas into a more compact, easy-to-transport state.

There are significant rules and regulations operators need to follow to make sure the transportation and pipeline system meets standards or, for more in-depth information, can check out the Handbook of Natural Gas Transmission and Processing Principles and Practices.

The steps to transport natural gas can be complicated, but over the past 20 years, the number of significant incidents has decreased while the consumption has increased, showing an improvement in the processes. Let us know what you think about the pipeline process to transport natural gas, or ask your questions in the comments.

Sources: “The Transportation of Natural Gas”

The Balance: “Know the Natural Gas Lines Before Digging”

U.S. Energy Information Administration: “Natural Gas”

U.S Energy Information Administration: “Today in Energy”