The Optimistic Futurist: Lowering gas customers bills also lowers climate change risk

  • Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2013 12:38 p.m.
Francis Koster
Francis Koster

Last summer, Professor Nathan Phillips of Boston University and teammates equipped a car with a new-to-market natural gas detector, and drove around Boston sniffing for leaks in underground natural gas pipes. And helped blow the minds of public officials all across the country.

The sniffing team found 3,356 natural gas leaks.


Using the same breed of new technology, a different research team flew over natural gas production fields in Utah, and found leakage rates between 6.2 percent and 11.7 percent.

These combined findings are stunning because for years the assumed leakage rates for the entire system from well to kitchen stove was estimated be between 1 percent and 3 percent.

As a society, we face a terrible dilemma. Very smart people have discovered how to unleash a powerful source of energy and make a great deal of money from it. And these recent discoveries show that the system that captures and delivers this energy to customers allows some of it to escape in amounts that cost customers a lot of money and are capable of changing the climate where we live.

This tension between short-term personal profit/job creation and midterm collective danger has fed into our politics. The debate between “jobs now” and “danger, danger ... climate change” seems to be mostly conducted while shouting. Fortunately, there is a way to find common ground.

The scale of the challenge is almost hard to grasp — in 1990, there were about 270,000 working natural gas wells in the United States. By 2012, thanks to new technology called fracking, that number had risen to around half a million wells all across the United States. Entering from the right of the stage are the “jobs now” crowd.

This output goes from wells to big pipes to cross the country, and is then transferred to little pipes to get to our house. In total, there are 2.4 million miles of leaking underground pipes in this system. So entering from the left side of the stage are the “danger danger ... climate change” crowd.

This leakage is a big deal because leaking natural gas has 166 times more impact on climate over its short life than an equal amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning coal. Methane survives only 12 years — but does vast damage in that time.

The good news is that as society observes more violent storms and weather extremes, and comes to believe that something has to be done, it can be. Aggressive action on stopping methane leaks will mean less short-term climate change, and that which is has already leaked up there will stop being a problem in 12 or so years. These efforts can have an impact before it is too late, while the larger task of reducing CO2 emissions is launched.

Money can be saved. The Boston “sniffing team” prompted Senator Markey of Massachusetts to ask for the cost of the escaping natural gas. The resulting investigation found that the cumulative 10-year leakage inside the cities of Massachusetts alone cost the average household around $500.

Under current law, most system leakage is averaged into the customer’s bill, so they pay for it even though they did not use it. This leaves the utility with little incentive to fix the problem. You see, all maintenance costs money. If it costs a little to fix a big leak, it pays to do so. If it costs a lot to fix a bunch of little ones, management is less likely to devote the resources to locate and fix these, because the customer pays for the leaking gas anyway.

So we have a problem where the solution of fixing leaks makes jobs while saving consumers money and protecting us from climate change. Not a bad win/win/win. All we need is public pressure on the utility operators to step on the gas.

Student groups or others who want to take a personal step to protect against climate change may be able to obtain methane detectors from sources like their local fire department or gas utility, or even buy one from Amazon, where they range in price from a few hundred dollars new for a basic version to a quite adequate one for around a thousand. What a science project that would make!

To learn more, you can see amazing photos by googling “images Boston natural gas.”

To see the sources of facts used in this article, and learn of other successful money and life saving programs that can be implemented locally to create a better future for our country, go to www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org. The Optimistic Futurist is published every other Sunday.

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