"Do you know that we have pipes carrying natural gas in this country that are made of wood? I'm not joking."
Bill Maher, in a Sept. 14 interview on CNN's Larry King Live
When a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, comedian Bill Maher brought up an issue we would have never thought to raise.
Are there really wood pipes for natural gas in use today?
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 that 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 wood pipe. Typically, the wood pipe simply lies next to active lines made of more modern materials.
About a decade ago in Pennsylvania, an active wood pipeline was found encased in clay and incorrectly marked in utility records, said Jennifer Kocher, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
We suspect that this episode is the source of Maher's claim.
A Sept. 14 Associated Press story written in the wake of the San Bruno disaster said that "a few places in Pennsylvania still had wooden gas pipes as of last year, according to officials there." The AP stands behind its reporting, but that part of the story is in dispute.
Kocher told PolitiFact that she was interviewed a year ago by AP but that the article didn't quote her accurately. Kocher said she told the reporter the story of the wood pipe discovered 10 years ago, but she also emphasized that no wood pipe has been found since and that none is believed to be in use today.
Kocher told PolitiFact that there is no known wood pipe being used in Pennsylvania. That conclusion was seconded by Terry Fitzpatrick, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, which represents electric and natural gas utilities.
Rick Kessler, vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent advocacy group, told PolitiFact that his group has not been able to verify that there are wood pipes in use. Kessler said the idea verges on being an urban myth.
It's impossible to prove conclusively that there is no wood pipe currently in use without exposing 2 million-plus miles of natural gas pipe. Since the burden of proof for the Truth-O-Meter falls on the speaker, we rate Maher's claim False.
Edited for print. For more, go to PolitiFact.com.