Natural Gas: From Wooden Pipes to Wooden Heads

NED Pipeline - Tom Shepstone ReportsTom Shepstone
Shepstone Management Company, Inc.


Natural gas development is hardly new. We used to move the stuff in wooden pipes. Today, the industry struggles with wooden heads in the media.

A couple of weeks ago the landlord of the building where my offices are located, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, brought me a moment. It was a piece of wooden natural gas pipe dug up from underground during excavation for a new CVS store on his property a couple of years earlier. I had heard about wooden pipes once being used to deliver natural gas but had never seen one. I decided to Google the subject to learn more and what I found was a story as much about wooden heads as wooden pipes.

The story begins with what was once located on the site where my office building now stands; the Gurney Elevator Works. Here’s a postcard picture:

Wooden Pipes

Former Gurney Electric Elevator Works in Honesdale

That factory later changed hands multiple times, was redeveloped and in the 1960’s a new Moore Business Forms factory was built on the site but much of the underground infrastructure (foundations, piping, etc.) was never removed. Rather, the new building was simply built over top. When much of the Moore facility was razed a couple of years ago to build a new CVS, those older industrial remnants (the foundations below the foundations) were removed and up came this piece of pipe:

wooden pipes

Here a couple of close-up pictures:

wooden pipes wooden pipes

My landlord, who use to work excavation in and around the New York City area said it was not uncommon to find such pipes and he immediately knew what it was when the CVS builders dug this one up.  I wanted to learn more, so I did what we all do today in such circumstances; I Googled it. What I found was two news stories revealing so much of what is wrong with the natural gas and pipeline reporting in today’s media world.

The first link I checked was Politifacts story taking down this stupid comment made by Bill Maher on the Larry King show in September, 2010:

wooden pipes

Maher, supposedly a comedian, is mostly snark and condescension and never impressed me much. This time, though, someone called him on his shallowness, pointing out he had gotten his information from a media report that was simply wrong. The original source of the error seems to have been this AP story of a few days earlier wherein the reporters, Garance Burke and Jason Dearen, asserted the following:

A few places in Pennsylvania still had wooden gas pipes as of last year, according to officials there.

NBC News, home of serial exaggerator Brian Williams and previously caught staging fire and explosion stories,  took the story and hyped it up with video and pictures of fire and explosions. The wooden pipes reference added a little fear to the hype for wooden heads such as Bill Maher to propagate. The only problem was that it wasn’t true. Back to Politifacts:

So the heyday of wood pipelines — if there ever was one — came more than a century ago. They are never installed today, and only rarely are old sections unearthed. When it happens, it’s by accident. Officials from both the Association of Oil Pipelines (which represents the petroleum pipeline industry) and the American Gas Association (which represents natural gas companies) said that, on occasion, routine maintenance digs sometimes unearth old sections of wooden pipe. Typically, the wooden pipe that is found is no longer used and simply lies next to active lines made of more modern materials…

Kocher, the spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, told PolitiFact that she was interviewed a year ago by an AP reporter but that the article didn’t quote her accurately. Kocher said she told the reporter the story of the wooden pipe discovered 10 years ago, but she also emphasized that no wooden pipe has been found since and that none is believed to be in use today. The oldest pipe in use in the state is 120 years old, Kocher said, but it’s made of metal, not wood…

Does this establish conclusively that there is no wooden pipe currently in use? No — it’s impossible to prove that without exposing every inch of the 2 million-plus miles of natural gas pipe in the country. We also can see why Maher would have trusted an AP report (if that’s what he did) since we, too, tend to give the AP a high degree of credibility. Still, if you eliminate the AP’s claim of existing wood pipe, since Kocher now disputes it, we see no evidence that wood pipe is currently being used. And since the burden of proof for the Truth-o-Meter falls on the speaker, we rate Maher’s claim False.

Contrary to Politifacts, I have trouble assigning any credibility to AP. Yes, they have some decent reporters, Michael Rubinkam coming immediately to mind, but the organization, like others media types, is always on the hunt for what can be hyped. Facts are too often just things used by faux-reporters to bolster a preconceived idea they want to sell the public. This story is another instance of how it’s done and how the echo chamber works to spread the BS around. There are no wooden pipes used to deliver natural gas today, just wooden heads who want to believe it.

Here’s a little video of me showing the pipe and telling the story, an approach we hope to use more often:


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4 thoughts on “Natural Gas: From Wooden Pipes to Wooden Heads

  1. Fascinating story.

    Yes Bill Maher is snarky and condescending but no he is not not funny. He can be side-split tingly funny.

    Instead of emulating him by making snarky comments yourself about wooden heads, you would have been better served by SHOWING us yourself what good journalism is supposed to be, digging a little deeper into this story and providing more detail into what gas drilling and delivery technology was like 100+ years ago, National Geographic style.

  2. I was working by Elmira NY clearing for a pipeline. On my way back up the Row I actually seen a wooden piece of pipeline that was unearthed due to skidding wood over it. I was amazed not only at its integrity, but also at how much work it must have took to carve it out. Of course it had not been used for a very long time. It was just kinda neat.

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