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Natural Gas Leaks: An Economic and Environmental Disaster in Greater Boston

Introduction

Though advocates for the repairs of natural gas leaks have been plentiful in Greater Boston in recent years, thanks to the public visibility of non-profit organizations speaking out about the matter, many in Greater Boston remain unaware about the magnitude and effects of the problem of natural gas leaks. Though this is an issue in and of itself, this lack of awareness has consequences that span far beyond individuals’ homes; without knowledge of the issue, people cannot fully commit to lobbying their elected officials to take action on the matter. Greater Boston and Massachusetts as a whole has actually been fortunate – with many incredibly outspoken advocates and an electorate which has been willing to listen and act on their lobbying, some action has been taken to combat the pervasiveness of natural gas leaks. The purpose of this project was, and is, to examine the level of awareness among people in my community about natural gas leaks, and to seek to educate them about the problem. In doing so, I learned quite a bit myself about the issue and all of its facets, including its environmental and economic effects and how it plays out in government, business, and among grassroots groups.

In 2016, the last year a full measurement was taken, Massachusetts utilities reported 16,007 individual gas leaks, each of which differs in size, severity, and their current status of reparation. The above photo is a visual representation of each individual leak Southwest of Boston, which you can see at the top right of the map. Each dot on the map represents a leak, with the yellow, orange, and red dots corresponding to the level of severity. While 16,007 gas leaks is a massive quantity itself, independent researchers, some of whom are self-dubbed “watchdogs,” project that the actual number of gas leaks could be twice or three times that figure. The reasons behind the uncertainty over the figure are plentiful: there exists a largesse of natural gas pipes in Massachusetts, natural gas leaks are constantly occurring, making them difficult to measure at any one point in time, and natural gas leaks are very difficult to recognize. The lattermost reason explains why there exists such low awareness about the issue of natural gas leaks. The primary substance released in a natural gas leak is methane gas, an invisible and relatively odorless gas which is incredibly difficult to recognize. Knowing about its lack of visibility in my community, I conducted a survey to determine whether people lacked as much knowledge as I believed they did about the matter.

Before you read the results of the survey, I’d love to collect some of your opinions on the matter of natural gas leaks. Please take a minute to fill out the short survey attached:

The Survey – “Natural Gas Leaks”

For my Catalyst Project, I created a short, four-question survey that was intended to measure people experiences with and knowledge of natural gas leaks. I sent it out to over 1,000 people: the students and faculty at my school and the Arlington/Belmont (two suburban towns in Massachusetts) Town Email Chains. Though I was initially hopeful that everyone invited would respond, I was still fortunate enough to receive 194 respondents, a large enough group to get fairly conclusive data about my community’s awareness surrounding the issue. Here were the results, with my commentary included after each question.

Q1: Have you had natural gas leaks on your street in the past year? 

Yes: 18.13%

No: 53.37%

I’m not sure: 28.50%

Right away, I was quite surprised at how many people were unsure about whether they’d had gas leaks on their street. The presence of utility trucks repairing leaks had been quite noticeable on my street throughout my life, and I was surprised to see others didn’t have the same experience.

Q2: How often do you notice natural gas leaks in your neighborhood?

Once a week: 4.15%

Once a month: 5.70%

A few times each year: 6.22%

Once a year: 4.15%

Almost never: 17.10%

I’ve never noticed a gas leak in my neighborhood: 56.99%

Other: 5.70%

Much like the first question, the second question indicated that many had never noticed gas leaks in their close communities. The most interesting responses came from the “Other” answer choice, in which a few respondents indicated that they would notice one every single day, while others would reply that they weren’t sure what to look for, demonstrating the need for more awareness.

Q3: Do you consider yourself “knowledgeable” about the effects of natural gas leaks?

Very knowledgeable: 7.77%

Somewhat knowledgeable: 21.24%

I know a thing or two: 30.05%

Not a clue: 40.93%

The responses to this question were what startled me the most in this survey. My school offers a strong science and environmental program, but this does not guarantee the high knowledge levels about such a dominant environmental issue in our region, convincing me that raising awareness is still quite necessary, even with the presence of large organizations advocating against natural gas leaks.

 

Massive problem: 18.75%

Slight problem: 31.25%

Not a problem: 3.65%

  • Of the people who were confident in their answers and didn’t select “I’m not sure,” 6.80% believed natural gas leaks weren’t a problem. This is actually a higher number than I was anticipating – whether it be from an economic or environmental standpoint, natural gas leaks are pretty obviously an issue of some severity.

I’m not sure: 46.35%

The answers to this question also helped to define my motivations for the project. I was, and I remain, convinced that natural gas leaks are a huge economic and environmental issue, and part of my aim in completing this project is to educate others about how severe an issue it is.

 

So Why Are Natural Gas Leaks an Issue?

In Massachusetts, natural gas is sourced into the homes of ratepayers by three major utilities: Columbia Gas, National Grid, and Eversource. Since these utilities charge ratepayers for all the gas that they ship, including that which leaks out of the pipes, Massachusetts ratepayers pay nearly $40 million annually for gas that they don’t get to use for energy. As Boston University professor Nathan Phillips puts it, the situation is akin to going to the store to buy a gallon of milk, but the gallon of milk has a leak in it. Therefore, you’re paying for a whole gallon, when in reality, only 9/10 of a gallon stays in the jug.” Another key economic issue that leaks can cause is the misallocation of utilities’ funds. After all, many of the funds that are currently being used for repairing and/or replacing natural gas pipes could very easily be going towards the electrification of the grid, or to any other cause which could be deemed less reactive and more progressive.

Image result for gas leaks imagesImage result for milk gallon

In addition to the economic issues which natural gas leaks pose to ratepayers and utilities alike, natural gas leaks are, quite simply, an environmental disaster which affects all inhabitants of the state, regardless of their use of the energy source. Natural gas is up to 95% methane, the heat-trapping greenhouse gas which is significantly more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide and many other notorious contributors to climate change. In fact, research suggests that methane gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year period and 20 times more potent over the course of a century. The release of methane into the atmosphere can greatly increase atmospheric temperature and scientists estimate that roughly a quarter of the global warming we are experiencing today can be traced to methane emissions, the vast majority of which comes from natural gas leaks. In addition to threatening our environment, methane gas poses a large danger to public health, and replaces oxygen in the air by seeping into the roots of trees, eventually killing them. Methane contributes heavily to smog when released into the atmosphere, which aggravates asthma and other respiratory conditions.

 

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Why Is Boston Experiencing the Brunt of This Issue?

As one of the United States’ oldest cities, Greater Boston is notorious for its poor infrastructure. From the seemingly endless stretches of unpaved roads to the relatively small construction projects that take many years to complete, the city’s infrastructure is crying out for help, and the natural gas pipelines are no exception, second-oldest in the nation behind only Baltimore. The Environmental Defense Fund conducted a mapping project to determine the number of methane leaks in twelve American cities, and unsurprisingly, Boston ranked near the top, with the researchers finding one leak per mile they drove. This issue can be attributed to the corrosive and leak-prone materials that Massachusetts gas pipes have been built with. Unlike other states’ and cities’ pipeline systems, 45% of Boston’s pipes are made of corrosive cast-iron or other materials rated as leak-prone by the Environmental Defense Fund, and over half of the pipes are at least fifty years old. Unfortunately, the rest of the state’s infrastructure isn’t much better – of Massachusetts’ 21,000 miles of natural gas pipes, 4,000 are made from cast-iron and another 3,000 is made from what’s known as unprotected steel (unprotected from corrosion). Just to show the age of some of Boston’s pipelines, cast-iron pipes began being installed in the 1830s, and many of the 4,000 miles of remaining cast-iron pipe date as far back as the American Civil War. This lack of attention paid to updating Massachusetts’ and Greater Boston’s natural gas infrastructure over the past century has come back to rear its ugly head; Professor Nathan Phillips’ research team estimates that roughly ten percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions result from “the natural gas problem,” and he speculates that the figure could be “much, much higher in Boston.”

It’s worth noting that Boston isn’t alone in this issue. The Environmental Defense Fund is still researching the extent of the problem across the nation and the globe, but you can find their preliminary data for some major U.S. metropolitan areas here.

 

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What Has Been Done to Combat the Issue?

Although the results of my survey would indicate otherwise, advocacy groups have made great strides in raising awareness about the problem of gas leaks in recent years. Indeed, research-oriented institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and more confrontational groups like Mothers Out Front alike have experienced great success in their pursuit of action to combat the pressing issue. I asked Liz Delaney, a researcher at EDF, to explain the significance of these groups’ work: “Ten years ago methane pollution was not on anyone’s radar. It has taken strong science, economic analysis, and the persistence of voices like Mothers out Front and EDF to make policymakers take this seriously. I think that this sends a signal that advocates are not going away – in fact, they are even more committed and serious about addressing this issue.” 

Indeed, these advocates have not been around for long – but in the boardrooms of utilities, and in the Massachusetts state house, they have already made their presence felt, serving as a very good example of what successful advocacy looks like. Both Mothers Out Front and EDF lobbied quite intensely for the passage of 2014 and 2016 state bills which recognized the issue of natural gas leaks and set out a loose plan for combatting them. Indeed, the 2014 bill set a strong precedent for categorizing leaks by their size and severity, and vowed to repair or replace all pipelines with leakages posing massive public health issues. However, this bill did not provide a good solution to the vast majority of leaks which contribute heavily to global warming and greenhouse gas emissions without seriously threatening public safety. In order to pass bills that could address such matters, advocates will need to continue growing in size and stature, which is only made possible through raising awareness and alerting people to the severity of the problem. With natural gas leaks, though, raising awareness can be incredibly difficult; as indicated by my survey, few people are aware of the presence of the invisible and nearly odorless methane gas, and as such, very few people are aware of the consequences and dangers it brings to Boston for the foreseeable future.

 

Image result for march for science bostonImage result for electrification

What Else Can Be Done?

Although the utilities largely responsible for the natural gas leaks plaguing Massachusetts and Greater Boston have been relatively cooperative in trying to solve the problem, as publicly traded companies, Columbia Gas, Eversource, and National Grid have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits above all environmental and public health concerns. Unfortunately, repairing and replacing infrastructure costs money, and so these massive corporations are inclined to address the problem in as minimal a manner as possible. However, a growing base of advocates can combat the massive amounts of resources on the utilities’ side by lobbying Congress to address the problem harder than ever before, with the goal of requiring the immediate repair of most leaks. For this to be successful, it requires a movement much like many of the other movements occurring across the world at the moment; there needs to be increased awareness among all inhabitants, and people need to band together through organizations like Mothers Out Front, as well as individually calling their congressmen and congresswomen to offer their input.

Ultimately, though, doubling down on natural gas (via repairs and replacements) isn’t the long-term solution for solving the environmental issues caused by leaks. Rather, if we can repair the high-severity leaks and concentrate the rest of our resources on electrification and other, more progressive, methods of addressing climate change, we can hopefully move towards a clean energy future. Indeed, as Professor Nathan Phillips found in one of his team’s most recent research projects, 7% of gas leaks account for 50% of methane emissions. If we, as a society, can band together to pressure utilities to repair those heavily consequential leaks, we can begin to allocate more of our funds away from maintaining the existing natural gas infrastructure and towards ensuring a greener future. However, this issue is being solved far too slowly for the danger it causes. From both an economic and environmental standpoint, natural gas leaks have wreaked havoc on Greater Boston for too long, and conclusive action to solve the issue can not arrive soon enough. It will require a massive effort to raise awareness and lobby Congress, but with dedication and persistence, ideas will become bills, which will become laws and regulations, which will become the driving force behind our full transition away from natural gas leaks and towards a future with cleaner energy.

If you have any questions or ideas about how you, as an audience member, can get involved, please do not hesitate to reach out to me in the comments section. In addition, I highly recommend researching how natural gas leaks affect your cities and towns, with the hopes of contacting your government officials – I would love to hear about some of your findings. Please fill out this concluding survey so I can continue to gather data about the natural gas problem and gain some understanding of my audience’s perspective:

Bibliography

Interview with Nathan Phillips. April 16, 2018

Interview with Liz Delaney. April 13, 2018

Interview with Ania Camargo. April 17, 2018

https://www.edf.org/icf-methane-cost-curve-report

https://www.edf.org/climate/methanemaps/city-snapshots/boston

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

http://www.wbjournal.com/article/20171002/PRINTEDITION/309299996/natural-gas-leaks-cost-mass-39m-annually

http://ma.mothersoutfront.org/working_to_fix_gas_leaks

 

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