Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Dangerous Levels of Methane Found While Testing Natural Gas Leaks in D.C.

Climate

By Tina Sigurdson

A team of scientists using portable methane detectors reported last week that it has detected 5,893 leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, from gas utility lines in Washington D.C.

Last February, the team, composed of researchers from Duke and Boston Universities and led by Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, determined that a dozen of those leaks were big enough to trigger explosions. Its members promptly reported the leaks to Washington Gas Co., according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. But when the scientists retested those sites in June, nine were still emitting dangerous amounts of methane.

Jackson told USA Today that he was “shocked” that Washington Gas hadn’t repaired the leaks. “If you dropped a cigarette down a manhole . . . it could have blown up,” he explained.

Jackson and his colleagues from Duke and Boston University launched their first leak detection project in the fall of 2011, driving the streets of Boston in cars fitted with sensors that sniff methane. They found more than 3,000 leaks across the city. As a result of their findings, utility crews fixed six leaks large enough to cause explosions.

The team repeated the experiment in Washington D.C., in January and February of last year. They discovered that the concentrations of methane in D.C. gas leaks were higher than in Boston’s leaks: fully 51 of the leaks in D.C. contained more methane than Boston’s biggest leak. Two of the 12 potentially explosive leaks in D.C. were found near Union Station. Another was located in downtown Washington, near office buildings and a George Washington University residence hall. The Washington Post’s website shows a map of the leaks.

Natural gas leaks in Boston, D.C. and other cities are often caused by the deterioration of decades-old cast iron and bare steel pipes. Washington has a higher percentage of distribution mains made of cast iron than any other place in the country. That may explain the prevalence of methane leaks in the city. 

Sen. Markey (D-MA) introduced two bills last year to support natural gas pipeline development and repair. A report prepared by Markey’s staff asserts that because gas companies can charge their customers for “lost” gas, between 2000 and 2011, American consumers paid as much as $20 billion for gas they never received.

The companies are less able to pass along the costs of capital improvements and repairs. Consequently, they have been slow to replace old pipes with safer materials such as plastic. In 2012, natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline incidents killed seven people, injured 51 more and caused almost $8 million in property damage, as reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some of these tragedies have been attributed to old pipes. A 2011 explosion in Allentown, PA, caused by an aging cast-iron pipe, killed five people and destroyed eight homes.

A less visible but serious problem is that methane is a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, roughly 60 percent of global methane emissions are caused by human activity, and leaks occurring during natural gas and oil extraction, production and distribution are the nation’s most significant source of these emissions. These leaks contribute significantly to global warming—a sobering fact often overlooked by those who propose to increase natural gas use as an alternative to coal.

The findings by Jackson’s team underscore the need for repairs to the aging natural gas infrastructure. As Jackson told the Environmental Working Group, “Reducing natural gas leaks will save people money, improve consumer safety and air quality, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

That nearly 6,000 gas leaks have been found in the nation’s capital should serve as an important reminder of the multitude of harms caused by reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas. We can’t afford to stop at fixing broken pipes. We must go even further and repair our broken energy policies.

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY and CLIMATE CHANGE pages for more related news on this topic.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Refrigerated trucks function as temporary morgues at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal on May 06, 2020 in New York City. As of July, the states where COVID-19 cases are rising are mostly in the West and South. Justin Heiman / Getty Images

The official number of people in the U.S. who have lost their lives to the new coronavirus has now passed 130,000, according to tallies from The New York Times, Reuters and Johns Hopkins University.

Read More Show Less
A man walks on pink snow at the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, Italy on July 4, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less
Climate activist Greta Thunberg discusses EU plans to tackle the climate emergency with Parliament's environment committee on March 4, 2020. CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP

By Abdullahi Alim

The 2008 financial crisis spurred a number of youth movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. A decade later, this anger resurfaced in a new wave of global protests, from Hong Kong to Beirut to London, only this time driven by the children of the 2008 financial crisis.

Read More Show Less
A climate activist holds a victory sign in Washington, DC. after President Obama announced that he would reject the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal on November 6, 2015. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

The Supreme Court late Monday upheld a federal judge's rejection of a crucial permit for Keystone XL and blocked the Trump administration's attempt to greenlight construction of the 1,200-mile crude oil project, the third such blow to the fossil fuel industry in a day—coming just hours after the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the court-ordered shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Read More Show Less
A forest fire in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia on June 2, 2020. Yevgeny Sofroneyev / TASS via Getty Images

Once thought too frozen to burn, Siberia is now on fire and spewing carbon after enduring its warmest June ever, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
The Colima fir tree's distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo

By Agustín del Castillo

For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jeanette Cwienk

This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.

"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?

Read More Show Less