A recent safety report found that Atmos Energy Corp. (“Atmos”) has one of the worst safety records in Texas. The report compiled a list of incidents occurring between 2006 and the present. The findings revealed that more than two dozen homes have been destroyed by explosions occurring on a network of natural gas pipelines owned and operated by Atmos. In addition to the massive amount of property damage, nine deaths and twenty-two severe injuries have resulted from these explosions. For context, Atmos’ largest division, Atmos Mid-Tex, has received five times more safety violations than CenterPoint Energy, a Houston based utility corporation and major competitor to Atmos.
Leaking pipelines are dangerous as the substances transported through the lines are often flammable, explosive, and of a volatile nature. Leaks can fill an exposed area with hazardous gases or liquids which, if ignited, can result in fires and explosions. In the past decade alone, Atmos has received over 2,000 safety citations from the Railroad Commission of Texas, the government agency in charge of instate pipeline regulation. The citations have been assessed over approximately 30,000 miles of pipeline. By comparison, CenterPoint Energy (“CenterPoint”) has received just over 400 citations across roughly 33,000 miles of pipe. Put mathematically, CenterPoint has roughly 10% more pipeline and 80% fewer citations than Atmos. A citation means that the Railroad Commission has identified a safety issue, but has provided the company an opportunity to become compliant before a penalty is formally assessed.
One of the most frequent safety issues for which Atmos has been cited is gas line corrosion. Historically, Atmos has repeatedly failed to replace worn out components such as pipe connectors, which could cause a pipeline leak if the part fails. Another major driver of Atmos’ problems is the fact that many of their lines are very old. In the Dallas-Fort Worth Area, Atmos’ pipelines account for roughly 35% of the pipelines installed before 1940. Some amount of pipeline corrosion is expected, but age plays a major factor for several reasons. The first is the fact that older pipelines are made from outdated materials such as bare steel or even cast iron, which are more prone to failure than modern materials. Further, a large driving factor in corrosion is the seasons. During periods of drought, the ground naturally shrinks and contracts, exerting pressure on the pipelines, creating leaks. During periods of rainfall or ice formation, the ground expands quickly, exerting even more pressure on the pipes. Modern pipelines are constructed with materials designed to withstand these natural forces, but the combination of less durable materials, as well as the sheer period over which these natural forces have had to operate, means that older lines come with substantial risks.
Atmos has stated that it takes safety issues seriously, and has made strides to improve its record. It points out that the number of incidents has dropped off in the last five years by more than half. Further, since 2010, the company has implemented a rigorous employee training program to improve its response to these incidents. It has even gone as far as constructing a simulated city where employees can practice responding to leak events and other emergencies. Finally, the company has stated that it doesn’t believe older pipelines are necessarily more dangerous than new ones. The company has a plan in action to eventually replace all its old lines with pipes made of modern materials.
Critics note that Atmos’ plan to replace old pipes does not operate on a quick enough time table. In comparison, CenterPoint has already updated all the pipes in its network with modern materials. Further, critics argue that the issue is not just identifying problems, but ensuring that the speed of repair is adequate to ensure safety. Indeed, in one case, a gas explosion which decimated a home and severely injured a young child, occurred while repairs were underway.
Even with modern pipeline technology, the only way to absolutely prevent pipeline incidents is to never have one on the property. Landowners faced with condemnation proceedings for a new pipeline across their property should take steps to ensure that they are appropriately compensated and their rights are fully protected for the significant risk they are being forced to bear.
Written by Christopher Chan and Graham Taylor