A closer look at underground natural gas pipeline leaks across the United States

Younki Cho, Kathleen M. Smits, Nathaniel L. Steadman, Bridget A. Ulrich, Clay S. Bell, Daniel J. Zimmerle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Underground natural gas (NG) pipeline leakage can result in methane (CH4) buildup and migration through the soil. What is not well understood in such scenarios is how the soil conditions affect the gas migration behavior, particularly in regard to the relative contributions of specific soil properties such as soil moisture content. The objective of this study was to investigate the effects of soil properties on CH4 concentration and migration from leaking underground NG pipelines. Site characteristics such as surface cover and spatial dimensions, soil samples, and gas concentration data were collected from over 70 gas leakage sites across the United States using a standardized sampling method. Soil samples were collected from excavation sites that were 1.50–50 in depth.The collected soil samples were analyzed in the laboratory to measure the soil texture, permeability, and moisture. Statistical analysis was performed to evaluate the effects of soil properties on CH4 migration distance and concentration. Soil texture was consistent across geographic locations due to standardized pipeline backfill protocols, allowing for the analysis of gas concentration and transport data with respect to soil conditions. Soil moisture content was the dominant influence on the gas concentration and spreading distance. High soil moisture content was associated with reduced lateral diffusion and elevated concentrations near the leak point, whereas dry conditions were associated with reduced concentrations and greater spreading distance. Increasing soil moisture content reduced the lateral diffusion of CH4 into the soil due to water-induced tortuosity, resulting in elevated concentrations close to the leak point. Lateral migration of CH4 was suspected to be by diffusion, starting at 5 m from the leaks, while transport within the immediate vicinity of the leak was controlled by advection. These findings demonstrate a pronounced effect of soil moisture content and permeability on CH4 migration distance and concentration, providing key insight into the effects of soil conditions on NG migration and how to account for such effects in leak detection surveys.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number00095
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under Grant Nos. 693JK31810013 and 693JK32010011POTA.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright: © 2022 The Author(s).


  • Gas transport
  • Methane gas migration
  • Natural gas
  • Underground pipeline leakage
  • Unsaturated soil


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