Gas Leaks Threaten Public Health, Time to Fix Pipes

(Could this be a job for Big Data, Citizen Journalists and Hackers?)

Not only is the greater Boston region losing about $90 million a year from its old cast iron pipeline system, but these leaks, comprised primarily of methane which has 72 times the potent heat trapping effect on atmospheric warming as carbon dioxide, contribute significantly to greenhouse gas, the leaks also can cause deadly explosions.  Who pays for this lost gas?  The end user customer, homeowners and local businesses pay.  The cost of this lost gas could heat 200,000 homes a year.

Until recently there has been very little incentive in Massachusetts, or anywhere in the world, for gas distribution companies to upgrade their pipes and reduce leaks, despite the toxic effect on the atmosphere, deadly explosions and higher costs to citizens.  Last year new Massachusetts legislation encouraged NStar to increase their leaky pipe replacement rate from 4% of pipe miles per year to a planned 7% in 2015.  Massachusetts has a total of about 91,000 miles of pipes.

A recent study led by Steve Wolsky and Kathryn McCain at the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences expected to find that 1.1% of all gas delivered to the region leaked but instead found that 2.7% of all gas was lost, about 2.5 times as much lost as they’d expected.

Areas like New England, that built their distribution systems over 50 years ago using cast iron pipes that freeze and thaw in the cold, causing cracks in the pipes, are particularly at risk for methane gas escaping into the air.  Globally the average loss is assumed at about 3.2% of all distributed gas.  But that rate can vary widely, even in New England.  According to the PHMSA – US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s database, which lists more than 1,400 gas companies, 72 companies reported lost and unaccounted for rates of 10 percent or higher. Two-hundred-and-seventy-five (275) companies had a rate between 3 and 9.9 percent.

Still, there are few incentives to solve this multi-dimensional problem.  As of 2012 only two states had passed legislation to protect homeowners from paying for this lost gas.  Pennsylvania limits charges for lost gas to 3% and Texas limits charges for lost gas to 5%.

Big leaks have caused hundreds of explosions in the USA, just in the years between 2002-2012.  These explosions resulted in 116 deaths and over 400 serious injuries.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 19% of the total methane emissions in the US come from gas pipeline leaks.

Massachusetts is taking a step to solve this problem that will perhaps attract citizen scientists and big data hackers.  A recent study by Boston University found over 3000 gas leaks in the streets of Boston.  New legislation will require the state to respond to municipal requests for information about gas leaks.  With this information cities and towns can pressure utility companies to fix the leaks.  NStar had budgeted $2.4 billion to repair leaky pipes over the next five years.

Prepared by Barbara Thornton
Follow Barbara Thornton @assetstewards


“Leaks In Gas Pipes Exceed Estimates”, Boston GLOBE, Jan. 22, 2015, David Abel

“How Much Natural Gas Leaks”, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Aug. 1, 2013, Stephanie Paige Ogburn and ClimateWire

“America Pays for Gas Leaks”,  a report for Sen. Edward J. Markey, July, 2013

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