A recent study that revealed more than 3,000 natural gas leaks in the streets of Boston is fueling questions about whether natural gas is truly better for the environment than coal or oil, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
"Concern over water contamination from fracking for natural gas aside, some argue that the much-advertised climate advantage of natural gas may be all but offset by the steady release of methane during its long journey from the well to the 65 million American households that depend on natural gas," the Times wrote. Molecule for molecule, methane has 72 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.
"Now researchers in Boston have given skeptics of the at-least-natural-gas-is-better- than- coal argument some additional ammunition," the Times wrote. "In Boston and many other aging cities in the Northeast, a maze of underground low-pressure natural gas pipelines are riddled with leaks."
The Times was reporting a recent research project led by Nathan Phillips, an associate professor of earth and environment at Boston University that was written up in the journal Environmental Pollution. Phillips and his team measured atmospheric methane concentrations along all 785 miles of road within Boston's city limits and discovered 3,356 leaks of methane that originated in fossil fuel.
"We know there's a lot of leaks in Boston and outside of Boston, too, and we know that there is a good chunk of industry-reported lost and unaccounted-for gas," Dr. Phillips told The Times. "What we don't know, and what we, and a bunch of other people are trying to get a handle on, is how much methane is coming out of all of these leaks. What is the rate of flow? Is some of it just metering problems, or accounting issues?"
Many of the pipes in Boston are more than a century old and are made of cast iron or in some cases even wood, the Times reported. "While they are slowly being replaced by modern plastic pipes, only time will tell if these are truly more durable: many are designed to last only 50 years," the Times wrote. "Replacing just one mile of pipeline costs around $1 million. And in the event of a rupture, newly paved roads may have to be dug up to repair a pipeline."
In addition to being a potent greenhouse gas, methane leaks kill trees, causing $133 million in property damage nationally each year, according to the article. "According to the Energy Information Administration, an average of $3.1 billion worth of natural gas is lost or unaccounted for nationally each year. Generally it is the consumer ratepayers, not the producers, who pay the penalty for the lost gas," The Times wrote. "'The consumers are bearing the cost of the inefficiencies in the system, and that needs to be shifted to give the operators and owners of the pipelines real incentives to fix those leaks,' Dr. Phillips said."
To read the New York Times article, click here.