How often natural gas explosions happen in Minnesota

Here's a look at what causes natural gas leaks.

The explosion and fire at Minnehaha Academy was caused by a natural gas leak from construction being done on the building, Hennepin County Emergency Management says.

Natural gas is used a lot in Minnesota, especially to heat homes and business, Energy Minnesota says. It's not dangerous as long as the gas stays in a pipeline or is used the right way (like when you're cooking on a gas stove). 

The danger comes when it leaks out. That's because natural gas is flammable, so any flame or tiny spark could cause a fire or explosion, Alliant Energy explains.

These leaks can happen if a pipeline is damaged, like if someone digs and breaks an underground line; if an appliance isn't hooked up correctly; or if infrastructure is just getting old, Popular Mechanics said

Usually you'll probably know if there's a leak – you can smell it, it's like rotten eggs – so you can get out of your house or business and call 911 as soon as possible. (For natural gas safety tips, click here.)

That smell helps limit the number of injuries and deaths associated with gas leaks. In fact, The Atlantic said it's more common to die by falling out of bed or being struck by lightning than by a gas leak, or an explosion caused by a leak. 

Deaths caused by gas leaks aren't that common

In 2016, there were 635 incidents on all types of natural gas pipelines in the U.S., which caused 17 deaths, 84 injuries, and $311.5 million worth of damage, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The gas lines consumers usually deal with are "distribution" pipelines, which carry natural gas to homes and businesses. And last year, there were 120 incidents involving this type of pipeline in the U.S., which caused 11 deaths, 76 injuries and $57.7 million worth of damage.

Data for Minnesota isn't available for 2016, but here's a look at the number of distribution pipeline incidents in Minnesota between 1997 and 2015: 

As you can see in the figures, there generally aren't very many – seven is the highest total since 1997.

In the three natural gas incidents in 2015, two were caused by lightning and one was caused by material or equipment failure, the website says. (You can read more about how lightning can cause a natural gas leak here.)

Besides these distribution pipelines, there are "gathering" and "transmission" lines. Gathering pipelines are ones that bring natural gas out of production wells, while transmission pipelines transport it across the country, CBS News explains

When looking at all gas pipeline incidents in the state of Minnesota over the past 20 years – so distribution, gathering, and transmission – the state averages 13 incidents annually, less than one fatality, one injury, and $3.24 million worth of damage. 

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