Environmentalists and regulators cannot determine how severely natural gas is aggravating climate change because no one has been able to measure the full impact, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
As researchers measure natural gas leakage at different point in the supply chain, however, the evidence suggests that natural gas systems are emitting raw gas in such high quantities that natural gas has no environmental advantage over oil or even coal. Methane, the principle component of natural gas, has 25 to 70 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and is a leading cause of global climate change.
The Washington Post article highlights an ongoing study of natural gas leaks from the transmission system in Washington, D.C., which is very similar to a recent study that found 3,356 gas leaks in Boston.
The Washington, D.C., study provides the latest evidence of serious natural gas leakage. "Washington is at least as leaky as Boston, if not more," said Duke University Professor Robert Jackson. "It looks like it has both more leaks and bigger leaks than Boston." One manhole was leaking a 32 percent concentration of methane, the Post reported.
Jackson is participating in a two-year, $10 million project to measure natural gas emissions, which occur during drilling and continue as gas is transmitted to customers. "We don't have enough data to develop sound policy going forward," Steven Hamburg, chief scientist of the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, told the Post. "As activists and energy executives debate the natural gas industry's impact and the Environmental Protection Agency weighs whether to impose new regulations, Hamburg said, 'it's critically important' the country develops a better data set on methane leaks," the Post wrote.
"University of Colorado research scientist Gabrielle Petron, who also works in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's global monitoring division, said the rate of increasing atmospheric methane concentrations has accelerated tenfold since 2007," the Post reported. "She said it will take a few more years to determine whether the natural gas boom helps explain the change."
The Post notes that gas leaks not only harm the environment but also endanger the population. "Gas leaks contribute to smog and can lead to explosions and fires, including the one that leveled a Kansas City, Mo., restaurant Feb. 19, or the 2010 San Bruno, Calif. pipeline explosion that killed more than half a dozen people," the article states. Gas leaks are also believed to kill trees in urban areas by replacing oxygen in their roots and drying them out.
Current regulatory policies actually discourage gas utilities from repairing leaks, according to the Post. "While aging infrastructure contributes to leaks, so does the fact that utilities in Boston and the District can pass on the full cost of unaccounted losses — whether through leaks or theft -- to customers," the article states. "In the District, this charge makes up 3 percent of Washington Gas customers' monthly costs; in Boston it represents 1 percent of residents' monthly bill, the companies say."
Leaking natural gas was also the subject of a recent article by CleanTechnica.com. "Scientists are increasingly making use of new hyper sensitive mobile gas sniffing technology to do what's never been done before: locate, identify the source, and quantify the [methane] emissions leaking from natural gas pipelines. What they're finding isn't good," the article states. "Residents of US cities and other communities are literally sitting atop ticking time bombs, as well as being subject to chronic exposure to methane and other toxic emissions."
City officials across the U.S. are banding together to protect their citizens, according to the article. "The potential threats and actual destruction caused by natural gas pipeline leaks, explosions, and fires have galvanized US mayors into action," CleanTechnica wrote. "Members of the US Conference of Mayors met in San Bruno, California recently for the inaugural sessions of the Mayors' Council on Pipeline Safety. Spearheading the initiative are Mayor Ed Pawlowski of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Mayor Jim Ruane of San Bruno, two cities recently devastated by deadly natural gas explosions and fires."
To read the Washington Post article, click here.
To read the Clean Technica article, click here.