Natural Gas Leaks: A Risky Business In Need of a Fix | Conservation Law Foundation

Natural Gas Leaks: A Risky Business In Need of a Fix

John Kassel

A few weeks ago, Springfield, MA, was rocked by a natural gas explosion that destroyed a building, ruined a city block, and was hailed as a miracle because no lives were lost.

The pipelines that lie below our communities, always out of sight, came suddenly came into focus. The explosion reminded us of the sobering reality that our streets are not always safe. Despite smart investments in energy efficiency and new energy technologies in New England, when it comes to natural gas, whose infrastructure is among the oldest in the nation, we have been reluctant to prioritize investment in replacing and repairing the pipes and valves that we rely upon not only to heat and power our homes, but to keep us safe.  When it comes to natural gas efficiency and investment, there is much more we can do – so much more.

We need to improve safety, increase efficiency, and reduce the risk to communities and to our planet. It is my belief, as well as that of my colleagues here at CLF, that we can and should make our communities healthy and safe from the unnecessary risk of explosions from old and leaky pipelines. This is vital, for two reasons.

It’s vital because methane, the major component of natural gas, is 25 times more potent as a global-warming causing gas than CO2. In a year that has broken so many temperature records, and in an age when climate is showing the signs of human distortion, we are constantly reminded of the strain we are placing on our global ecosystem. It is a strain we need to urgently reduce.

It is also vital to replace and fix pipes leaking natural gas because it is so combustible. Springfield reminded us of this fact. So too did the explosions that that rocked San Bruno, California in 2010, Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2011, and Gloucester, MA in 2009, and most recently, Sissonville, West Virginia, to name only a few. These explosions are reminders of the serious care and attention that our natural gas infrastructure needs. If we fail to provide them with that care, we gamble with our safety, and with our lives, as this image from the San Bruno explosion vividly shows.

As my colleague Shanna Cleveland recently said, “The need for action is particularly acute in Massachusetts where over one-third of the system is considered ‘leak-prone’—made up of cast iron or unprotected steel pipe.” The leaks in Massachusetts are so significant that the gains by efficiency programs put in place by Massachusetts regulators are disappearing into thin air. A report released by CLF by that name (Into Thin Air, available to download for free here) documents how these leaks, known as “fugitive emissions,” are being borne not by the utilities, or by the regulators, but by consumers. Utilities pass the cost of lost gas onto ratepayers to the tune of $38.8 million a year. Here’s an infographic from that report:

Another report by Nathan Phillips of Boston University combines Google Earth and research into a compelling visualization of just how prevalent these leaks are.

Like the explosion in Springfield, Nathan’s map documenting the 3,356 separate natural gas leaks under the streets of Boston reminds us that, as we walk or drive down the street, we are often driving through an invisible cloud of natural gas leaking from aging pipes. If you are like me, to accept the avoidable risk of a predictably volatile gas is deeply unsettling.

With the exuberance for cheap, domestic natural gas on the rise, proposals for new massive interstate pipelines are in the works. Houston-based Spectra, a natural gas pipeline company, is proposing a $500 million expansion for Massachusetts alone. Before we go down that route, I would like to make three simple suggestions.

1) Whether the natural gas industry ever delivers on its claim of being more environmentally friendly than coal or oil depends on how well natural gas infrastructure addresses leaks. We develop more accurate tools for assessing the greenhouse gas emissions from pipelines.

2) Not only is investment in new pipelines and power plants expensive, but it comes with serious and lasting environmental consequences whose costs are too often discounted or ignored.  Before we blindly rush ahead with investments to expand, we need to look closely at the full range of costs.

3) Finally, we would do well to remember the lessons we have learned so well about the environmental and financial benefits of looking to efficiency first. Efficiency, both in the traditional sense of reducing our use of natural gas, and in the sense of maximizing the efficiency of our existing natural gas infrastructure by replacing outdated infrastructure and repairing leaks will reduce risk, reduce costs, reduce environmental impacts and put people to work throughout the region.

As the explosions in San Bruno, Gloucester, Allentown, and Springfield have reminded us, this is about the safety of our communities. We should not let promises of short-term profit in new projects trump both the near-term risk of thousands of leaks and the long-term sustainability of this region and stability of our climate.

Ignoring leaky natural gas infrastructure is risky business. Let’s fix what we have, and maximize our efficiency gains, before aggressively expanding. We’ll be more sustainable, and safer, that way.


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