Monday, August 12, 2013

Natural Gas Leaks-Death and Climate Change

Yellow spikes are methane leaks measured in Boston. From Jackson et. al. 

Two recent studies have documented thousands of gas leaks in Boston and Washington D.C. Last year two scientists, Robert B. Jackson, Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke University and Nathan Phillips, associate professor at Boston University Department of Earth and Environment collaborated with Robert Ackley of Gas Safety Inc., and Eric Crosson of Picarro Inc., to perform a study of gas leaks in Boston. They mapped the gas leaks under the city using a new, high-precision methane analyzer provided by Picarro installed in a GPS-equipped car. Driving all 785 road miles within city limits, the researchers discovered 3,356 leaks. The leaks were found to be associated with old cast-iron underground pipes, rather than neighborhood socioeconomic indicators. Levels of methane in the surface air on Boston’s streets exceeded 15 times the normal atmospheric background value. Cast iron is often the oldest and leakiest, especially at the joints, although other pipeline materials can also develop leaks.

This past spring, the team replicated the study on the streets of Washington, D.C. The results for the Washington D.C. study have not been published, but preliminary reports indicate that D.C., too, has thousands of leaks from its natural gas distribution system. According to a report in Scientific American, Dr. Jackson stated, the number of leaks per road mile is similar to that of Boston, but has almost twice as many miles of road.

For some time our infrastructure systems have failed to keep pace with the current and expanding needs, and investment in infrastructure had faltered as an unseen way to cut costs. Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, grades the infrastructure in the United States, from water mains, sewer systems and plants, the electrical grid, the neighborhood streets and the national highway system, dams, rail roads, airports. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, connecting businesses, communities, and people, making us a first world country.

In 2013 the grade for energy remained at a D+ despite the boom in gas and oil due to weakness in the distribution systems. Though, the recent booms in oil and gas production could supply the energy demand, we have failed to maintain and upgrade the oil and gas. Gas distribution companies are well aware of the leaks in the system. The companies calculate the difference between the gas pumped into the distribution system and what is metered at the end user. This is referred to as "lost and unaccounted-for" gas is often a surcharge on customer bills. These leaks are wasteful, dangerous and a significant source of greenhouse gas released into the environment.

Distribution companies prioritize finding and fixing leaks likely to be explosion hazards, where gas is collecting and concentrating and ignore the small losses from deteriorating iron pipe. Though sometimes they do not do that well enough. Natural gas distribution leaks and explosions cause an average of 17 fatalities, 68 injuries, and $133 million in property damage each year, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The transportation and distribution systems run into homes and businesses. In 2010 a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, CA, just south of San Francisco. There was no warning and eight people were killed, 58 were injured and 38 homes, the entire section of a neighborhood, destroyed. The deaths in San Bruno did not change the way we maintain our infrastructure, though the California Public Utilities Commission has proposed a $2.25 billion penalty, which includes a $300 million fine.

According to Dr. Jackson and Phillips detecting and reducing gas leaks are critical for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and consumer safety, and saving consumers money. In addition to the explosion hazard, natural gas also poses a major environmental threat: Methane, the primary ingredient of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas that degrades air quality. Leaks in the United States are reported to contribute to $3 billion of lost and unaccounted for natural gas each year. Included in the details of the White House climate plan, originally introduced in a speech at Georgetown University in June, is an “interagency methane strategy” that examines the scope of leaks from gas wells, pipelines and compressor plants to examine their contribution to global warming.

The White House climate plan was released immediately after the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a series of recommendation for measures that might curtail the rapid growth that has occurred in carbon dioxide emission from fuel combustion that has taken place in the past few decades despite treaties, meetings and conferences. Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly and, in May 2013, carbon-dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in several hundred millennia.

Though mankind has blown through the tipping point in CO2 emissions that was just a decade ago referred to as the point of no return, the IEA is making policy recommendations that might hold the global temperature increase to 2 to 4°C by cutting global CO2 emissions growth so that it does not exceed 38.75 billion metric tonnes from fossil fuels in 2020. These recommendations really fall into two categories, efficiency and maintenance:
  • Installing energy efficiency measures in buildings, and requiring increased efficiency in industry and transportation
  • Preventing the construction of and limiting use of the least-efficient and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. In addition to increasing the share of power generation from renewable sources (including nuclear) and from natural gas
  • Reducing methane released from the processing and distribution of oil and gas by replacing aging infrastructure and improving technology implementation.

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