Natural gas has a serious problem with leakage that has been tolerated by consumers and regulators and under-reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and major media sources. Google, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and others are working to raise awareness of natural gas leaks and their harmful impacts.
Google and EDF teamed up last year to illustrate methane leakage from natural gas lines in cities around the country, and now, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., is getting into the act, according to a recent report by Inside Climate News. The group, Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), has located more than 20,000 leaks across Massachusetts and published maps showing the exact location of each and every leak.
"I want to make the invisible visible," said Audrey Schulman, president of HEET, told Inside Climate News. "I want to allow people to understand that this isn't a distant problem that doesn't have to do with them. I want them to understand it's on their street, it's near their home, it's near their school, and it's near their business."
The problem with leaking natural gas from a climate perspective is that it consists primarily of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane in the atmosphere traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
"Aging pipes that deliver natural gas under city streets are notoriously leaky but unless the leaks pose a safety hazard, utilities are not required to fix them," the Inside Climate News report states.
"Utilities often have little incentive to fix leaks. In Massachusetts, gas companies are allowed to pass on the cost of lost gas to their customers. The oldest leak in the state, one near Boston's Fenway Park, has been emitting methane into the atmosphere since it was first reported in 1985."
In a related story, ThinkProgress.org is reporting that, "Pretty much every recent news article you've read about the global warming impact of methane compared to carbon dioxide is wrong. Embarrassingly, everyone from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself to the New York Times and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal continue to use lowball numbers that are wrong and outdated."
The article states that many sources, including the EPA, routinely fail to use the latest information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which states that methane is 86 times stronger as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time scale. Instead they use references to the 100-year impact of methane, which is lower.
"If you think that the 20-year global-warming potential (86) might actually be more relevant in a world where we are only decades away from crossing points of no return for key climate impacts, you aren't alone," the article states. "The fact is the 100-year potential has been used in part because scientists have been focused on the long-term warming impact - and the year 2100 is an endpoint for much analysis. But after ignoring the scientists for 25 years, the world really needs to worry that we are likely to cross dangerous tipping points long before then."
A recent New York Times statement that methane is "over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide" uses a figure that is nearly 20 years out of date, according to ThinkProgress.org. The report also cites articles by USA Today, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal that use global warming potential numbers of 20 to 25 for methane, rather than the IPCC's 86.
"The bottom line is that methane is a superpotent greenhouse gas - especially over the medium-term, a timeframe of growing concern to scientists," ThinkProgress states. "The media needs to start getting its facts straight, especially since we know that methane leaks from the entire natural gas lifecycle from fracking to combustion significantly undercut or eliminate any meaningful climate benefit from the fracking boom."
To read the Inside Climate News article, click here.
To read the ThinkProgress.org article, click here.