Reading Your Street: What You Can Learn About Natural Gas Infrastructure

Shanna Cleveland

You’ve heard of the writing on the wall, but what is all that writing on the sidewalk and the street? You’ve seen it—yellow, orange, blue, red and white.

Some of it is pretty easy to decipher like “DS” for “Dig Safe” or “STM” for “steam” but some of the drawings look more like ancient hieroglyphics.

 

It’s incredible what’s running right beneath our feet, like an entire natural gas infrastructure, but we rarely take time to think about it.

In Massachusetts, we have over 21,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipeline running under our streets. That’s almost enough pipeline to circle all the way around the Earth. For perspective, you could drive from Boston to San Francisco and back three times and still not put 21,000 miles on your odometer.

I’ve been thinking about what’s under the street a lot over the past two years. In July 2011, I was introduced to a professor at Boston University, Nathan Phillips, who had embarked on a journey of mapping natural gas leaks in the City of Boston. Using a high tech sensor, Nathan was detecting leaks and translating them into incredible visual representations that called attention to the aging natural gas pipelines criss-crossing our city.

natural-gas-infrastructure

Maps created by Nathan Phillips of Boston University

After I saw Nathan’s maps, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the ground. Whether I was walking or biking, I started to notice all kinds of infrastructure, not just natural gas, everywhere.

There were “Gardner Boxes” in front of the houses on my street—these are one type of emergency shut-off valves for gas service lines.

natural-gas-infrastructure-Emergency-Shut-Off

Emergency Shut-Off

Then there were the large, bold, golden “G”s on the street, sometimes accompanied by CI (which stands for cast iron) or PL (for plastic) or BS (for bare steel), or CS (for coated steel) 18-in or 12-in or 3-in (telling me the diameter of the pipeline), and NGrid or NStar (the name of the company that owns the pipeline).

Suddenly, I could tell a lot about my street just from looking down. But what I couldn’t tell from the markings alone was just how important natural gas infrastructure is for a safe, thriving and sustainable neighborhood. That took some digging of a different variety.

Leaking Pipes Contribute to Climate Change

What I found was surprising and unsettling. Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas pipelines in the country. Almost 4,000 miles of the pipeline in Massachusetts is cast iron and another 3,000 is what’s known as “unprotected steel” (meaning unprotected from corrosion). These two types of pipe are referred to as “leak-prone pipe” in the industry because they are highly susceptible to breaks, fractures, and corrosion. Cast iron pipe was first installed in the 1830s, and some of the pipe in Massachusetts that is still in service dates to the Civil War. The gas utilities have started to focus on replacing this “leak-prone” pipe, especially since the tragedies in San Bruno, California and Allentown, Pennsylvania brought home how dangerous old pipelines can be.

But replacing old and leaking pipelines isn’t solely about public safety. It’s also a matter of conserving a valuable natural resource and tackling climate change. Natural gas is up to 95% methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100 year time frame. When natural gas is combusted, in your furnace or in a power plant, it emits much less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, but when it’s leaked directly into the air from a pipeline, it adds up to a significant source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Unfortunately, current methods for estimating just how much natural gas is leaking from pipelines aren’t very accurate. What we do know is that leaking pipelines in Massachusetts are releasing between 697,000 tons of CO2e and 3.6 million tons of CO2e every year. That’s a huge range, and one that we’re working to narrow with the help of Professor Phillips and his students. These leaks can also take a heavy bite out of gas customers’ pocketbooks, as a recent report prepared for Senator Ed Markey showed.

What You Can Do

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more information here about the efforts to replace leak-prone pipeline in Massachusetts and what you can do to make sure that your street is both safe and climate friendly. Until then, here are a few tips to remember:

1) Dig Safe—You never know what types of pipelines, wires, or cables may be running under your lawn or sidewalk. Dig Safe will contact the utilities so that they can mark the lines for you. Even for small projects like planting a tree, always check in with Dig Safe before you dig. It’s free, and it’s required by law to keep you and your neighbors safe. You can check the website or simply call 811 before you dig.

2) Report Leaks—If you think you smell gas, put out all open flames and do not use lighters or light matches. Do not touch electric switches, thermostats or appliances. Move to a safe environment and call your gas company or 911 to have them come check it out. Here is the contact information for Massachusetts’ three largest gas companies: Columbia GasNational Grid, and NStar Gas.

3) Conserve—It sounds simple, but using less is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the climate impacts from natural gas. Contact MassSave for a free home energy audit.

4) Contact your Legislator—Legislation is pending in Massachusetts right now that would help fix these leaks. We’re supporting H.2933 and portions of S.1580. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, you can take a look at the testimony we filed with partners like Clean Water Action.

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