By on May 23, 2012

Photo: Sierradelta74’s not that uncommon for a writer to make a mistake. You’re in the flow of the moment, tapping out stylish bon mots with just the right balance of serious and snark and it sounds right so you don’t bother to research the point and you later find out in the comments section that you made a factual error. It’s usually much more than that, but an 800 word post on a car blog is not a treatise written with graduate school levels of footnotes and citations, so mistakes get made and I’m hardly blameless in that regard. Still, sometimes you gotta call a mistake a mistake, and Jalopnik made a whopper.

As part of their I Feel Gassy series on energy issues, Benjamin Preston posted Why We Aren’t Driving Natural Gas Powered Cars, contrasting the current glut of natural gas in the United States (and significant new finds of recoverable gas deposits), with this country’s relative paucity of natural gas powered vehicles. Much of Preston’s article dealt with the controversy over fracking, since extracting gas from those new plays will most likely involve hydraulic fracturing. While I think he could have been more balanced in his selection of sources and treatment of the subject, what really jumped out at me was his categorical (and factually wrong) statement on how natural gas gets to consumers.

Ben makes the legitimate argument that there are many costs to extracting natural gas, financial and environmental, that are not immediately obvious. The extractive industries use a great deal of water and producing fossil fuel has its own carbon footprint. Preston goes on to argue that one hidden cost and environmental impact of drilling for natural gas is that America lacks pipelines to get the gas to market.

[Extracting natural gas] uses a lot of water, and with no pipeline infrastructure, transportation costs money and adds to air pollution.

When I first read that, I thought, “What do you mean, no pipeline infrastructure? There’s a gas line to my furnace!” Upon second thought, though, I considered that Preston might have meant that there were no pipelines for carrying needed water to the wells. Farther down in his piece, however, Preston makes it clear that my first impression was accurate. Those increased air pollution and transportation costs are supposedly the result of needing to use tanker trucks to move the gas from the wellhead to consumers.

As it stands now, most natural gas is transported by tanker trucks — a lot of tanker trucks.

I realize that most website editors don’t do a lot of fact checking, but don’t any of the Jalopnik editors ever cook with gas? Do none of them have a natural gas fired furnace heating their homes? Have they never seen a natural gas well in a rural area? Does Ben Preston really think that most natural gas is transported by trucks and that we don’t have an infrastructure of pipes that carry gas from the well to consumers? Does he think there’s a constant stream of tanker trucks queuing up to every natural gas well in America?

Regarding our supposed lack of a pipeline infrastructure, an image search on “natural gas pipelines” yielded a variety of maps of the interstate and intrastate pipeline networks that crisscross the United States.

Sure looks like a pipeline infrastructure to me.

As for Preston’s contention that “most natural gas is transported by tanker trucks”, again that’s simply not true. Don’t take my word for it, take the word of Ed Tucker, who runs Tucker Gas Processing Equipment, which, among other services, will transport natural gas via trucks. TGPE’s website explains when that makes sense:

Many sources of natural gas are shut-in and abandoned because the economics simply do not justify their development. In some cases, access to public transmission lines may be limited by distance or local geography. In other cases, the need for additional processing to bring the gas up to pipeline quality standards may be a factor. While many industrial applications can utilize gas that does not meet these strict standards, the distance to the nearest such industrial consumer may not justify the cost of laying a direct pipeline. In such cases, transporting the gas by truck may provide a solution.

When I asked TGPE what percentage of US natural gas is transported to market via trucks, Ed Tucker told me (emphasis added):

The answer would be next to none. The CNG trailers in the US are used primarily to transport gas from one place to another when they are repairing a pipeline and have to shut down a line for a few hours. Some years ago we had two small projects transporting from small gas fields. We had an inquiry from Vermont earlier this year where they wanted to substitute CNG for propane since there were no pipelines and the ratio of cost for propane was $28 per one million Btu versus pipeline gas at $2.50 per one million Btu.

Had Preston’s remarks about there being no natural gas pipeline infrastructure been restricted to newly developed wells, that might have been more accurate. However, based on what Tucker told me about how little gas is actually trucked, I think it’s safe to assume that the developers of any new natural gas wells include hooking them up to the existing pipeline system as part of the installation of those wells. In addition to dedicated natural gas wells, natural gas can also be a byproduct of extracting petroleum. Tucker pointed out that in the Williston Basin (under Montana, the Dakotas, and Saskatchewan), oil producers that aren’t serviced by gas pipelines will flare off the natural gas they produce rather than truck it and sell it. The cost of trucking it to a processing or gas sweetening plant is just not cost effective, particularly at a time when natural gas prices are low.

Photo: CNG Services of ArizonaSo, contrary to what Jalopnik says, there are thousands of miles of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the US and no, there aren’t “a lot of tanker trucks”  used to move gas from wellhead to your stove, furnace, or even a natural gas vehicle refueling device.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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36 Comments on “Jalopnik Brain Farts On Natural Gas Pipelines...”

  • avatar
    Ex Radio Operator

    I believe that most LPG tanker trucks are transporting propane or butane to point of sale depots for sale to individuals. There are industrial uses for LPG that do not require large quantities of LPG and tankers are also used for that. Very little “natural gas” is transported by truck.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Propane and natural gas are two different things, and are not interchangeable fuels. Propane is a by product of refining crude oil and is heavier than air. It liquifies at a relatively high temperature and low pressure, making it useful for being transported in containers and used for barbecue grills and the like. There are some homes where propane is used as a heating fuel and for domestic hot water. Farmers use a tractor-pulled array of propane torches to burn weeds off of a field. And its common to see propane fueled lift truck used in indoor environments such as warehouses because it does not create appreciable amounts of carbon monoxide.

      Natural gas liquifies at much higher pressures and lower temperatures than propane, so, other than in large ships, it is not transported in a liquid state. It also is lighter than air, which can be a safety factor in many applications (such as cooking fuel in boats).

  • avatar

    I would never have dreamed to see an article about gaslines on TTAC.

    But it’s not that stupid. I googled, but couldn’t find a single gas tanker related accident in the US. So it must be very safe, right?

    • 0 avatar
      Speed Spaniel

      Not true. A small natural gas tanker crashed in the South Shore of MA back in 2009. This happened a quarter of a mile from my house. The driver was high on drugs, miscalculated taking a curve and ended up upside down on my neighbor’s lawn. The police went around the neighborhood evacuating a mile radius stating if the tank blew, there would be significant property loss. So I took my dogs and left. I left the cat behind.

      • 0 avatar

        That my friend was a smart decision.

      • 0 avatar
        Felix Hoenikker

        Natural gas confined in a tank cannot explode without oxygen present inside of the tank. It can leak out and ignite reuslting in a huge fireball that is highly emmisive and dangerous due to thermal radiation. This happend in Edison NJ in the mid 90s when a high pressure natural gas pipeline ruptured and ignited.
        But, in a strick techincal sense, calling it an explsion is just ignorant.
        Evacuration of everyone in a mile is overkill, no pun intended. 500 yrd is more than adequate for a large pipeline. 200 yds would be more than enough for a small tank truck like this. Don’t ask me how I know thiS because I would have to kill you afterwards.

      • 0 avatar

        Felix Hoenikker,
        This occurred when I was in school. Given that in moments of emergency, you don’t always know what you are dealing with, or where escaped gases may be trapped, it is reasonable to protect against the worst. Thus, reacting as though the gas is something worse is understandable if not commendable.

        Also, your credibility would be much better if not for: “But, in a strick[sic] techincal[sic] sense, calling it an explsion[sic] is just ignorant. Evacuration[sic] of everyone in a mile is overkill, no pun intended.”

        BTW, explosion = a large-scale, rapid, or spectacular expansion or bursting out or forth (Merriam Webster); a violent expansion in which energy is transmitted outward as a shock wave (Google)
        Thus, something that could “ignite reuslting[sic] in a huge fireball that is highly emmisive[sic] and dangerous due to thermal radiation” seems aptly labeled an “explosion.”

      • 0 avatar
        Felix Hoenikker


        An explosion requires an over pressure. A flare makes a lot of noise, but does not generate a pressure wave, just a lot of heat.
        My point was that if the jet of high pressure gas leaking from the tank ignited, the hazard woujld be a fire threat, but not an explosion.
        I am aware of unconfined gas cloud explosions. These clouds require tons of heavy gas hugging the ground that did not ignite at the source of the leak. There is not enough compressed natural gas in a tanker to do this plus it is ligher than air and will rise and dissipate rapidly. So you get a flare or nothing. The heat from this type of a flare has a small radius of danger probably about 100 yds.

  • avatar

    “So, contrary to what Jalopnik says, there are thousands of miles of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the US”

    Just for a point of reference, the company I work for has over 11,000 miles of pipeline.

  • avatar

    Sure there are exceptions for remote rural areas or perhaps some folks on the top of a mountain, but out side of that, most homes in the USA and Canada are generally serviced with NG. Between heating, cooking, hot water and drying your clothes we all use many many many cubic meters of the stuff every year. This, along with the huge international pipeline network that accompanies it, is common knowledge or so I thought.

    They do great work there but when I read last weeks post I thought perhaps it was a joke. Glad to see someone noticed the error.

  • avatar

    Indeed- the opposite is true- gasoline is trucked all over the place.

    However- one thing that sould not be ignored is that it does take considerable energy to compress natural gas into CNG at 3600psi. So although you save on transportation costs, you’ll have to pay the piper on the compression energy costs.

    • 0 avatar

      “Indeed- the opposite is true- gasoline is trucked all over the place.”

      Yes, but gasoline is also piped around the country also, through very large pipes: The blue pipes in this image represent products like gasoline.

      A few years ago, an above-ground gasoline valve (connected to an underground 8″ interstate pipe, as I recall) burst a few miles from my home, sending a geyser of gasoline 100 ft into the air, showering the nearby businesses (including a restaurant) with liquid fuel on a cold day just before Thanksgiving. Miraculously, there was no fire and no injuries, except for a few fish in a nearby stream.

      This was when I first learned that such pipelines exist even for gasoline.

  • avatar

    They’re wrong about the lack of existing infrastructure to get gas to points of distribution or to homes.

    However, the home filling stations are not cheap.

    Claims $4000 purchase cost + installation, $2000 refurbishment cost every 6000 hours of operation (90k miles if you assume 30 mpg).

    Those 6000 hours, btw, can compress 3000 GGE (gallon-gas equivalent) of NG. So you fill up at the rate of one GGE every two hours .. again assuming 30 mpg, recover range at a rate of 15 miles per hour.

    It’s not clear if that limitation is due to flow rates to the residence or is peculiar to that particular filling supply equipment. It’s a moot point if you fill up overnight (as most NG owners or EV owners do), and the Civic GX has an 8 gallon NG tank which certainly offers much more range than comparable EVs.

    The Leaf fills up at about 10-12 miles per hour.. from its < $1000 level 2 supply equipment. Cars equipped with a 6 kW onboard charger (Coda, Focus EV) will fill up at twice that rate.

    Compressing 1 GGE looks like it takes about 2.5 kWh at the residence .. which is a significant chunk of the 7-10 kWh the Nissan Leaf would require to directly fill its batteries to go those same 30 miles.

    From Jalopnik's article:
    "Daniel Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean air program, suggested that as far as cars and light trucks go, American natural gas would be consumed more efficiently by using it to produce electricity that would then power electric and plugin hybrid vehicles."

    NG has some advantages over electric (much faster fillup if you can find a fast-fill station), but on the whole I'm inclined to agree. NG, diesel, or pump gas for long distance travel. Electric for commuting and short distance travel. Each has their place.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately most CNG vehicles have less than a 200 mile range. The reason is that 1GGE of CNG actually takes up something like 3 gallons of tank volume. And the CNG tank must be cylincrical. It can’t just be any arbitrary shape like your gasoline tank. So it is buly and takes up lots of space. And super expensive.

      So it’s not going to work very well for long range commuting. You still need a diesel car for that.

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry to sound like a whimp, but do I want to be compressing natural gas in my garage? If that’s a compressor station in the above photo, I’m not safely impressed.

    • 0 avatar

      We are on our fourth CNG car in our family. Home refueling is not practical or economical, for the reasons stated above, especially with the high electric rates in California.

      We use public CNG pumps and pay about $2 per GGE, including road tax. That is the important infrastructure necessary for CNG cars to expand beyond urban fleets and fringe users like us. The pumps look and work very much like gasoline pumps. Short range and limited fueling options make owning one similar to a Nissan Leaf. The advantage is much lower purchase price and 95% of the car is identical to its gasoline counterpart, making parts and service a mostly non-issue.

  • avatar

    There is just under 300,000 miles of NG transmission lines in the US. That does NOT include local distrubution or supply lines. That is just for transportation of gas to end users or crude oil pipelines. The average person has no idea how many pipelines are probably buried within walking distance of their neighborhood or their child’s school.

    With all the new gas coming online from all the shale fields now there are big plans to expand capacity on all the systems to handle the new gas so those numbers will be growing. I work for a transmission company and like was said above, the big cost of transport is compression. There are strict permitting requirements since NG is still regulated, and air permitting a turbine or gas engine is difficult in some parts of the country (California) so you use electric engines. But then you need electricity which is generated by coal or natural gas anyway so you still have the emissions being generated (and possibly worse emissions if it’s coal) as if you could just get permitted to run the engine off your line gas.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a boss who was planning on building a dream house and when they had the perq test for ground water, they found out that a 36″ natural gas line crossed their property, which made getting a construction loan almost impossible. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. I transferred to a different job so he wouldn’t ding my job record anymore, but for a year, every time I saw him in the hallway I’d ask him how the new house was coming along. Later he got fired for lying about his PhD.

  • avatar

    Ronnie, I agree that Ben should have done his homework and clarified more on his post, and I like that you have provided a respectful, well supported response. However, I do have to point out the following:

    Disclaimer: Working in the gas & oil industry doesn’t make me an expert on natural gas infrastructure, but I will provide some insight on the subject.

    Remember seeing these grey hat-shaped things outside buildings?

    They take the street pressure of natural gas (typically 60psi) and regulate it down to a safer, lower pressure to enter your house (1/4-2psi), which is then regulated again by the appliance to the service pressure it requires (just barely over atmospheric air pressure for stoves). Overall, most natural gas service lines will operate at pressures varying between 60-1200psi.

    Unfortunately, you can’t just grab the line to your stove and fill the tank of your CNG vehicle with it. You would never have a usable amount of natural gas in your tank because the pressure is so low. Vehicle CNG systems run at pressures as high as 3600psi (100x your tire pressure). Widespread distribution of 3600psi CNG at fueling stations would actually require infrastructure upgrades to handle the pressure and flow capacity needed for CNG fueling.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    The places that do not have universally available pipeline gas in the US are mostly in New York city and northeast of there in New England. Since most media are located there we get japlopnik for media.

    Second, NG will not affect the automotive fuel supply by direct use of NG in vehicles. The real effect will be gas to liquids. Petroleum now costs about $100/bbl. (worldwide not Cushing OK) with an energy content of about 6 GJ/bbl. 1 MMBTU of NG is <$4 and is 1.06 GJ. So a NG price of less than 1/6 of Petroleum is an underlay. Refiners can make money by converting $4 NG into $3 gal. gasoline or diesel. The only thing standing in their way are lawyers and environmentalists.

    A logical energy policy is: 1. kill all the lawyers. 2. use the entrails of the lawyers to strangle the environmentalists. 3. Run NG pipelines into the great white Northeast. 4. Build lots of pipelines to Canada. 5. Resume the killings by wiping out the legacy media.

    • 0 avatar

      “The only thing standing in their way are lawyers and environmentalists.”

      …and the gigantic upfront capital cost of the refinery vs. the risk that either our low natural gas prices or high gasoline prices (or both) might not stay that way.

    • 0 avatar

      …4. Build lots of pipelines to Canada…

      This is a myth. There are already lots of pipelines going to Canada.

      The Keystone XL Pipeline in particular is such a red herring.

      Today Canadian tar sand crude flows freely via pipeline into the United States to Midwest refineries. Those refineries turn Canadian tar sand crude into gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel. It is one of the main reasons why the Midwest enjoys some of the lowest gasoline prices in the nation.

      What Canada wants to do, and has freely admitted, along with every single non-biased study on the issue, is bypass those Midwest refineries and send the tar sand oil to the Golden Triangle of the Gulf Coast. There it can be refined for export via tanker to Asia and South America for a larger profit than selling it to the North American market place.

      The United States is not only a net exporter of refined petroleum products, it is our largest export (in terms of dollars). We have plenty of pipeline and refining capacity. It isn’t being sold here (to create a glut) because it would lower prices, and other countries are willing to pay for the product.

      Keystone XL will actually raise prices in the United States, and tighten overall supply. If Canada wants to ship its oil to China and developing South American nations that is certainly their right. They can do it through their own territory – and we can keep the oil flowing to the Midwest refineries.

      • 0 avatar
        Brendan McAleer

        Oh so THAT’s what the Keystone pipeline is for! I was wondering why we were going to be piping gallons of crappy beer to the Gulf coast.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Schwartz

        Refining adds value. Exporting added value earns money. The US is a debtor nation that must export added value in order to service its debts and be able to continue to import cheap plastic crap from China. This is econ 101.

        Before we kill the lawyers and environmentalists, we need to teach a lot of folks econ 101.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    As one who heats, cooks and refrigerates with natural gas, I especially enjoyed this article; thanks!

  • avatar

    So are natural gas pipelines a good investment?

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent question. I do own shares in three pipeline companies, oil and natural gas. The dividends paid are tremendous, but prices are quite volatile. Right now, NG prices are very low, but oil is high, so the companies are doing ok.

  • avatar

    Holy Cow, Batman ! I thought that there were maybe 5 or 10 pipelines in the country ! There are THOUSANDS ! Why, then, was there such a big hissy-fit about building the Keystone XL pipeline ? BTW, I live in Nebraska, and there is already a pipeline that runs through my town. And in the 19 years I have lived here, I have never heard of a single leak or major problem with it.

    • 0 avatar

      Because it represents profits. Big profits. It enables Canada to bypass the US market, ship the crude via pipeline to the Golden Triangle of the Gulf Coast, where it is refined and exported for sale at a larger profit than they can make in the North American market.

      The other huge, “WTF” over Keystone XL is Canadian tar sand crude already flows into the United States via Canadian pipeline to Midwest refineries. That is why the Midwest has generally speaking lower gasoline prices then the rest of the country.

      They want bigger profits, and bring Midwestern fuel buyers into parity with those on the coast.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Schwartz

        Refining adds value. Exporting added value earns money. The US is a debtor nation that must export added value in order to service its debts and be able to continue to import cheap plastic crap from China. This is econ 101.

        Before we kill the lawyers and environmentalists, we need to teach a lot of folks econ 101.

  • avatar

    Think Jalopnik will print a correction on that?

    I’m trying to think of the last home I was in in the USA that didn’t cook with natural gas. Can’t think of one, and heck many dryers use natural gas too.

  • avatar

    I’m amazed at how many people are totally unaware of how things work. I got into an argument with a coworker years ago. He insisted that almost all gasoline was shipped around the country by truck. I laughed at him and he got very upset about it. This was in the dial up internet days and I finally found a map of the pipeline system and he was totally freaked out that all that gas, along with crude oil, natural gas, and propane were being piped all over the area, including right down the street from his home!

    There was a huge fire in San Bernardino, Cal, in 1990 of a “petroleum pipeline” that exploded after a train wreck. Here is the show they made about it. What a disaster:

  • avatar

    how is this for natural gas issues. a former employee now works in the north dakota oil fields. this is the fastest growing oil producing area in the lower 48. ALL of this oil is shipped via truck to a loading station or refinery as there is not an adequate pipeline network to move the material.

    and the natural gas that is found along with the oil? burned off at the source of the well. 24-7.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the exception not the rule. Right now the reason natural gas prices are so low is that there is a glut of it being produced by all the oil wells being drilled. When the oil is removed there is also usually a lot of NG that comes along with it. The majority of the wells send the mixture off to be processed and remove the liquid from the gas and sell off both. In some remote places where the infrastructure doesn’t exist (as you have here) they just can’t do that. They are wasting a lot of money by venting, but they don’t have a choice. If gas prices were higher they would invest in processing equipment to capture it, but as it stands now they are already making a killing on the oil. Give them enough time and if the field is producing and looks to continue producing at high rates then the infrastructure will get built.

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