Natural Gas Transmission

SIC 4922

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry classification includes establishments engaged in the gathering, transmission, and storage of natural gas. Establishments involved in natural gas exploration and drilling are classified under oil and gas exploration industries. Establishments involved in both the transmission and distribution of natural gas are classified in SIC 4923: Natural Gas Transmission and Distribution. Establishments involved in natural gas distribution to end users are classified in SIC 4924: Natural Gas Distribution.

Industry Snapshot

Natural gas, as it exists in the ground, is not a single kind of gas, but rather a mixture of hydrocarbons, molecules made up of hydrogen and carbon, existing naturally in a gaseous state. The hydrocarbon gases include methane, ethane, propane, butane, and frequently, impurities such as water, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen, and helium. Methane, the lightest of the gases, is the most important gas for the energy industry. The heavier gases (ethane, propane, and butane) are sometimes included in the natural gas mixture transported by a pipeline, but usually they are removed for use in other industries, such as in the manufacture of industrial chemicals.

Traditionally, the natural gas industry has consisted of three primary activities: exploring for and producing natural gas; transporting the gas from production centers to market regions; and distributing gas to end users. Throughout the development of the industry, some companies have been involved in all three areas, while others have focused their efforts on only one or two.

The natural gas transmission segment of the industry includes gathering lines, storage facilities, and pipeline systems. In 2011, the United States had more than 210 natural gas pipeline systems consisting of approximately 287,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines. Gathering lines transport gas from producing wells to facilities, where impurities are removed, and to processing plants that separate methane from other types of natural gas. Methane can then be injected into storage or sent through transmission pipelines.

The gas pipeline segment of the natural gas industry has changed little since the 1992 enactment of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) Order 636, which "unbundled" pipeline operations from the sale of natural gas, allowing customers to purchase the use of the pipelines independent of the purchase of natural gas. Because of the squeeze on the availability of capital for new investments, the industry saw little growth during the early years of the twenty-first century. El Paso Corp. remained the industry leader in 2011.

Organization and Structure

Within the United States, gas flows primarily in a northeasterly direction toward the eastern states and the Midwest from four major producing areas based in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico. A smaller, but increasing, amount of gas is transported from Texas and Canada into California. Most of the natural gas is transported through interconnected webs of underground pipelines. Individual pipes vary in size from about five feet in diameter to less than an inch. The largest pipes collect gas in producing areas, while the smallest pipes deliver gas to individual households. By the late 1990s, more than 256,000 miles of pipeline transported the gas to 47 of the contiguous states (Vermont imported its gas from Canada).

Long-distance pipelines transport gas under pressure, usually about 1,000 pounds per square inch. The gas travels through the pipeline at a rate of about 15 miles per hour. As it moves through the system, local gas utilities and large individual users, such as industrial customers or electricity-generating power plants, make withdrawals. To keep the gas moving, compressor stations along the pipeline restore gas pressures, which otherwise would drop because of withdrawals and friction.

One advantage to natural gas as an energy source is that it can be stored. Natural gas usage fluctuates seasonally, typically showing slack demand during the summer months and dramatic increases during the winter when it is used for space heating. During times of low use, inexpensive gas can be purchased and injected into storage for use during times of high demand when the price usually is higher. Some companies meet more than half of their winter deliveries with gas from storage. Not all gas in storage is available for use, however. In order to maintain adequate pressure in a storage reservoir, a quantity of gas, referred to as "base gas," must be maintained. The gas available to be withdrawn is called "working gas."

Background and Development

The natural gas supplied in the United States comes from two basic kinds of sources, referred to as conventional and unconventional. Conventional gas is recovered from gas fields, both onshore and offshore. According to a traditionally held belief, conventional natural gas deposits were formed through long geological processes in combination with the decay of biological material. Under appropriate conditions, the gas became trapped in permeable rock and was covered by an impermeable cap.

Gas reservoirs consist of areas where the gas is contained within porous rocks and between the pieces that make up rocks. The amount of gas a rock formation can hold is based on how many of these tiny holes exist within the structure. Natural gas within a porous rock formation is prevented from migrating to the surface and into the atmosphere when a nonporous cap covers it.

Unconventional gas reservoirs have different geological characteristics. Some types of unconventional gas resources include: "tight gas" or "tight sands gas," which is found in low-permeability rock; "Devonian shale gas," which is found in shale deposits from the Devonian geological period; "coal-bed methane," which is natural gas that has been formed along with the geological processes that formed coal; "natural gas from geopressurized aquifers," which refers to gas dissolved under high pressure and at high temperatures in brines located deep beneath the earth's surface; "gas hydrates," which are ice-like structures of water and gas located under the permafrost; and "deep gas," which is found at levels much deeper than conventional gas. Although there is no scientific consensus, some believe deep gas originated from inorganic sources and that it exists everywhere as a result of the geological processes that formed the earth. Of the unconventional gas sources, the one most important to the gas transportation industry was coal-bed methane.

Recorded use of natural gas dates back thousands of years. The ancient Chinese used natural gas, piped through bamboo poles, to boil water to make salt. In the seventh century, natural gas transported through secret pipes fueled "eternal fires" in temples near the Caspian Sea, where people came to see the mystery and to worship.

In the United States, natural gas discoveries date back to 1775. George Washington reportedly saw flames rising from water near the location of present-day Charleston, West Virginia. That same year, other gas discoveries were made by French missionaries in the Ohio Valley.

In 1821 the discovery of natural gas in a well in Fredonia, New York, led to the nation's first pipeline. William Aaron Hart piped gas from a 27-foot-deep well to provide lighting for nearby buildings. The two other major developments that occurred in 1872 were the nation's first long pipeline (25 miles) being completed to provide natural gas to Rochester, New York, and the first iron pipeline transporting natural gas 5.5 miles to serve about 250 customers.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, natural gas fields in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia yielded nearly 80 percent of the natural gas produced in the United States. The National Transit Co., a subsidiary of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co., transported the largest share of the nation's gas. In 1898 Standard founded the Hope Natural Gas Co. to serve the West Virginia area and the East Ohio Gas Co. to serve residential and industrial users in Ohio.

At the turn of the century, large gas fields were discovered in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. As a result of their discovery, national production doubled between 1906 and 1920. By 1925 approximately 3.5 million customers used natural gas, most of them living within a few hundred miles of the producing sites. Lack of pipelines and other means of transportation thwarted efforts to fully utilize the resource.

Seamless, electrically welded pipe developed in the late 1920s enabled pipeline companies to carry gas at higher pressures. This meant that large quantities could be transported over longer distances. The world's first high-pressure, thin-wall, large-diameter gas transmission line was constructed in 1930 by the Natural Gas Pipeline Co. It transported gas produced in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to the Chicago area. The nation's first all-welded, high-pressure natural gas pipeline was constructed by the Hope Natural Gas Co. in 1936.

The development of pipeline technologies made long-distance gas transmission feasible, and the 1930s brought an increased awareness of the product's potential as an important energy resource. Until that time, gas was discovered almost incidentally as the nation searched for oil reserves. If a company drilled for oil and found nothing, it could simply walk away from the dry well. Gas wells, on the other hand, were considered a nuisance, because if a company struck gas, the well had to be capped. If gas was discovered along with oil, the gas was routinely burned off in a procedure called "flaring."

The mid-1930s marked a time of changes in governmental regulation of the gas industry. In 1935 the Public Utility Holding Company Act required holding companies to divest public utility subsidiaries. As a result, ownership of many local distributing companies changed.

In 1938 in response to Federal Trade Commission reports that pipeline companies were employing monopolistic price setting practices, Congress passed the Natural Gas Act, under which natural gas became a regulated commodity. The Federal Power Commission, given the responsibility of administering the Natural Gas Act's provisions, assumed control over pipeline rates. Actual price controls on gas were not instituted until after World War II.

World War II played an important role in the development of the U.S. natural gas pipeline industry. During the war years, the Axis powers sank tankers transporting fuel oil from Texas to the eastern seaboard. To help transport oil for the war effort, the government built two large-diameter oil pipelines between 1942 and 1944. Following the war, these pipelines were sold and became part of the nation's transcontinental natural gas pipeline grid. The result was that by 1947 gas from Texas could be piped to both U.S. coasts. Offshore drilling technologies also were developed during the late 1940s. The first offshore lease sales were held by Louisiana on August 14, 1945. The first successful offshore Gulf of Mexico production began in 1947.

Technological advances proceeded as methods for underground storage were created. In 1951 Consolidated Natural Gas and Texas Eastern Transmission Corp. opened one of the world's largest underground gas storage facilities at Oakford Field in southwestern Pennsylvania. At the facility, natural gas was stored in an existing, but depleted, gas field.

In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court's Phillips decision expanded the federal government's jurisdiction by granting the Federal Power Commission the authority to regulate the interstate gas market and control gas prices. This decision created a division between interstate and intrastate sales. The division between interstate and intrastate markets, which had begun to affect the availability of natural gas as early as the mid-1960s, became more profound. Because pipeline companies could get higher prices in intrastate markets, nationwide supplies began to dwindle. In 1975 the Federal Power Commission issued Order 533, which permitted pipeline companies to transport gas on behalf of end users who purchased it directly from producers. The order was intended to help large users avoid supply cuts because of declining gas supplies on the interstate market.

Low price ceilings also affected the rates at which new gas fields were discovered. Exploration began declining during the late 1960s, and as the discovery rate dropped, some industry watchers concluded that the nation was running out of natural gas reserves. In 1973, however, production of natural gas in the United States was at its highest at 21.7 trillion cubic feet. Increases in natural gas production helped offset reductions in oil imports due to the OPEC oil embargo. U.S. natural gas consumption also peaked in the early 1970s. During 1972, the nation consumed 22.1 trillion cubic feet and set record usage levels in the residential, industrial, and electric utility sectors.

A cold winter during the 1976-1977 heating season highlighted supply problems within the natural gas industry. Some large companies, such as Consolidated Natural Gas, were forced to cut deliveries to industrial customers holding "interruptible" contracts. Typically, gas had been sold under "interruptible" or "noninterruptible" agreements. Interruptible contracts, primarily sold to industrial users with the ability to switch to other types of fuel when necessary, called for the delivery of gas when supplies were available. Noninterruptible contracts, which were more expensive, called for a guaranteed amount of gas to be delivered.

Localized gas shortages during the late 1970s caused concerns about its availability and led to increased interest in expanding storage capacities. The gas shortages also led to the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act of 1978, which placed restrictions on the use of natural gas for generating electricity and for industrial uses. Congress also passed the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, which called for price deregulation and increased exploration and development, especially of potential nonconventional gas supplies. The act attempted to correct the price distinctions between interstate and intrastate markets by setting different prices on different categories of gas for both types of markets. It also made provisions to phase out wellhead price controls and to make pipelines more accessible to gas users wishing to purchase transportation services only.

Until the creation of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 1977, statistical information regarding the natural gas industry was compiled by the Bureau of Mines under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Thereafter, the Energy Information Administration, an agency within the DOE, assumed responsibility for collecting information regarding the natural gas industry. Also during this time, the duty of regulating interstate natural gas markets was transferred from the Federal Power Commission to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent office of the DOE.

FERC launched its restructuring efforts in the mid-1980s, and the process was completed with the issuance of Orders 636 and 636A in 1992. The new regulations were intended to promote competition within the industry and to restructure interstate pipelines by requiring them to offer their services separately rather than bundled together. Formerly, pipelines bought and sold gas at unit prices that included associated charges for transportation and storage. Without the ability to access pipeline delivery services separately from gas purchases, customers were unable to buy gas from other suppliers.

The new regulations required pipeline companies to "unbundle" services. This meant that they could not exclusively sell packages combining sales, transportation, and storage services. The restructuring orders dictated that all services be offered and priced separately. As a result, customers were allowed to buy gas from sources other than the pipeline. Consequently, many pipeline companies abandoned their customary merchant function, turning their attention toward selling gas transportation services and leasing storage capacity. The unbundling of pipeline services brought open access to gas transportation service. Large end users and local distribution companies increasingly made separate agreements under which gas purchases were arranged with producers or brokers, and transportation services were purchased from pipeline companies.

Also, as part of its Order 636, FERC identified four types of costs that pipeline companies could recover from their customers, including gas utilities, as they sought to comply with the new regulations. The costs pipeline companies were permitted to pass on were the cost of purchased gas that would have been recaptured under previously existing bundled contracts, the cost associated with reforming or canceling remaining contracts to buy gas, the cost of abandoning facilities or contracts rendered unnecessary, and the cost of installing new facilities required to comply with the regulations.

The gas transportation industry began responding to these legislative initiatives in the 1980s. Additional FERC orders issued during 1983 and 1984 addressed questions surrounding access to natural gas transportation systems. In January 1985, under the deadline set by previous regulations, most price controls on gas expired.

1n 1999 natural gas was the leading source for heating energy in the United States, holding more than 50 percent of the market. Heating oil still controlled 30 percent of the market, and electricity controlled 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent was divided among miscellaneous heat energy sources such as coal, wood, and propane. By 2010 government analysts predicted annual consumption of natural gas would be near 30 trillion cubic feet. To satisfy that anticipated market, as much as $32 billion was needed for new pipelines, and more than $2 billion for storage facilities.

Nonetheless, in December 1999, FERC voted 3 to 2 to refuse certification of the proposed $678 million, 401-mile Independence Pipeline intended to carry natural gas from the western United States and Canada to the East Coast. FERC also issued a hold on the $528 million Transco Market Link project connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as the $125 million ANR Supply Link Project between Chicago and Ohio. FERC's hold was intended to address not only environmental concerns for the high-pressure pipelines, but also to address objections to the ostensible need. Meanwhile, American Natural Resources Corp. (ANR) proposed in December 1999 to build a 130-mile pipeline under Lake Michigan to connect Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with northern Indiana. Its competitor, Wicor Inc., concurrently proposed a 150-mile Guardian Pipeline from Joliet, Illinois, to Ixonia, Wisconsin. ANR remained the top company nationally in 1999, when ranked by total gas throughput (4,511,426 Mmcf).

Aging pipelines that suffer from deterioration and corrosion were of concern to the industry. According to the "Gas and Liquid Transmission Pipelines" sector of the Federal Highway Agency's Cost of Corrosion Report, published in 2003, corrosion-related costs associated with the transmission pipeline industry are estimated to run between $5.4 billion and $8.6 billion annually, with a total cost of $541 billion to replace the 484,000 miles of pipelines.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the spot price of natural gas averaged $7.30 per thousand cubic feet in 2007 and would reach just over $8 in 2008. Natural gas transmission is affected by two related conditions. First, supply and demand of natural gas shifts based on the location of resources and the location of increasing demands in growth areas of the United States. New pipelines are needed to carry natural gas from the source to customers. Second, the lack of available capital for new investments has stymied pipeline expansion. The result is a shortage of transmission capabilities in numerous U.S. locations. At the same time, these shifts provide new opportunities for future pipeline expansion.

The Rocky Mountains region produces more natural gas than it uses, driving prices down and lowering the incentive for new exploration and drilling. However, new efforts were made to increase the flow of product from the Rockies into California, which continued to require more energy than it produced. Other projects have been proposed to move natural gas from the Rockies eastward. Areas of the Northeast, including New York and the Southeast, experienced some pipeline capacity strains during the 2000s, which may eventually require the installation of additional pipeline flow capacities to meet growing demands.

Twenty-one, or just under half, of the 45 natural gas pipeline projects completed during 2006 were located in the Northeast and Southeast. Those in the Rocky Mountains accounted for 26 percent of new natural gas pipeline capacity, and projects completed in northeast Texas accounted for another 25 percent. In the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the long-standing debate still raged over whether or not the North Slope of Alaska should be tapped for its vast reserves of natural gas. The Alaska Gasline Inducement Act was unveiled in 2007 and headed straight to a public review process.

The environmental advantages of natural gas remained significant, especially when compared to coal, which continued to fuel the bulk of the electricity generated in the United States at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Used as a fuel in a power plant, natural gas produces 100 percent less sulfur pollution than a coal plant; 100 percent less ash, sludge, or solid waste; 95 percent less particulate emissions; and 81 percent less nitrogen oxide emissions.

Current Conditions

By the early 2010s, the natural gas transmission industry in the United States was well established. According to the Energy Information Administration, 75 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was transported interstate in 2010. Total natural gas storage capacity in the United States that year was 8.7 trillion cubic feet. Top states in terms of storage were Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

New ventures in the industry were limited due to the heavy initial investment involved, but growth in the industry had been slow but steady, averaging about 1.4 percent annually between 2006 and 2011, according to a report by IBISWorld. In addition, the technology in the natural gas transmission business was changing less rapidly than in other areas of the industry. According to the IBISWorld report "The focus of technological change for pipeline suppliers has focused on information systems, especially those relating to pipeline security." This was a result of several pipeline breaks that had caused problems and a decreased trust of the American consumer regarding the safety of using natural gas. The report went on to say, however, that the industry was "expected to continue performing solidly" into the 2010s.

Industry Leaders

El Paso Corp., based in Houston, Texas, was the largest gas transmission company by pipeline miles in the United States, controlling an acquired 43,100 miles of interstate pipeline. The company's net income of $531 million in 2006 represented its first profit since 2000, and by 2010, El Paso Corp. reported revenue of $4.6 billion. In 2011 Kinder Morgan planned to purchase the company for about $38 billion.

In 2000 Duke Energy joined Phillips Petroleum's GPM Gas Corp. to create Duke Energy Field Services (DEFS). The company, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, controlled 58,000 miles of pipeline and 56 processing plants across the country, making it one of the nation's largest midstream natural gas operators. DEFS owned NGL processing facilities and sold about 40 percent of its related production to ConocoPhillips under a long-term contract. Duke Energy owned 70 percent of DEFS and ConocoPhillips owned the other 30 percent. Duke Energy reported revenues of $14.2 billion in 2010, four years after acquiring Cinergy Corp. for $9 billion. In 2011 Duke planned to buy Progress Energy for $13.7 billion.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the natural gas pipeline distribution industry employed 24,283 in 2009, who earned more than $2.2 billion in wages. Among the occupations listed, nearly one-third of the jobs were in office and administrative support occupations; under 5 percent were in management positions; 10 percent were in construction and extraction; and 21 percent were in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations.

At a 2003 American Gas Association Operations Conference, Health Promotion Management President Miriam Sims told gas industry managers that it was important to retain skilled workers who might be considering an early retirement. This was crucial due to decreases of available younger workers in the workforce. The labor shortage was expected to last for at least 20 years. A management shortage had affected other industries and was expected to impact the utility industry within a few years.

America and the World

Imports and exports played an important role in U.S. natural gas markets. During the 1990s, imports from Canada and exports to Mexico were at their highest levels in history. Net imports of natural gas from Canada were 3 trillion cubic feet in 1998, constituting 14 percent of overall 1998 U.S. gas consumption. The United States also imported liquefied natural gas from Algeria (69 billion cubic feet in 1998). The liquefied natural gas, transported by special tanker ships and kept in liquid form through refrigeration and pressure, entered U.S. pipeline systems after being re-gasified at special facilities in Louisiana.

Canadian gas, however, accounted for the bulk of U.S. imports, although 84 percent of the natural gas consumed in the United States was also produced in the United States. North American energy giant TransCanada controlled 13,888 miles of pipeline in its Alberta System, 9,176 miles of the Canadian mainline, and 110 miles of ANG Pipeline. In 1999 TransCanada also had partnership interests in 7,100 miles of North American pipelines. Canadian imports of LNG to the United States were expected to continue to rise, growing from 3 percent of the U.S. supply in 2003 to 22 percent in 2020.

In terms of natural gas production, the United States ranked second in the world, averaging about 17 trillion cubic feet per year. The world's top producer, the former Soviet Union, produced about 26 trillion cubic feet per year. Canada ranked third, producing about 3.5 trillion cubic feet annually. The world's fourth-largest producer, the Netherlands, supplied about 3 trillion cubic feet per year. The Netherlands obtained gas from both onshore and offshore facilities, exporting it through pipelines to Germany, Belgium, France, and Italy.

One of the longest international gas pipeline systems, the Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline, stretched more than 1,500 miles from the Sahara Desert in Algeria (on the north African coast) to northern Italy. The Trans-Mediterranean was designed to transport gas under the Mediterranean Sea, deliver it to markets in Italy, and eventually link to a European pipeline grid.

In 2004 worldwide demand for natural gas stood at approximately 100 trillion cubic feet. By 2015 demand was expected to reach 163 trillion cubic feet. In North America, natural gas usage for industry and electric power generation was expected to lead growth in gas demand with U.S. energy consumption expected to increase 30 percent between 1995 and 2015. On a worldwide basis, consumption of natural gas was growing at an annual rate of nearly 3 percent compared to 1 percent for other fossil fuels, and another 355,000 miles of natural gas pipelines, mostly in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, were to be added to the world gas grid by 2015. This growing demand, coupled with the trend toward privatization brought on by the FERC's deregulation, as well as easier access to foreign markets, boded well for U.S. gas transmission companies.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that Canada remained an important source of natural gas imports for the United States in 2010. That year, the United States imported 3.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas via pipeline from its northern neighbor. A much smaller amount (about 30 billion cubic feet) came from Mexico. U.S. exports via pipeline were less than exports, totaling 738 billion cubic feet to Canada and 333 billion cubic feet to Mexico. The United States also imported 431 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas (LNG), about 44 percent of which came from Trinidad/Tobago. Other important countries for LNG imports included Egypt, Qatar, and Nigeria. Exports of LNG went to Japan (50 percent), South Korea (17 percent), and the United Kingdom (14 percent).

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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