Optimistic Futurist: How some utilities pour gas on the climate changing fire

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 25, 2015

We have a situation. Leaking natural gas (methane) is one of the most climate-changing gasses we dump into our atmosphere. In some places it is leaking at a disturbing rate.

Scientists have just announced that 2014 was the warmest year on record and noted an increasing number of violent storms. Signs of climate change are being reported almost daily. Also noteworthy is that the language used to discuss the contribution of leaking natural gas in this emerging situation is misleading and creates a false sense of complacency.

Imagine your high-school-aged daughter coming home from her first daylong tailgate party at a college football game. You detect that she has been drinking. So you ask, and she shifts her eyes away from yours and says that she averaged one drink for every one of the six hours of the event. You would be horrified — and perhaps still suspicious that there was more to the story. Further digging and tears leads you to the revelation that she was in a drinking contest and consumed six drinks in one hour — but reported it as an average of one for every hour she was gone. She told the truth — sort of.

You imagine the risks she may have faced.

The original statement about six drinks over six hours was misleading because it minimized the risk by misstating the time frame.

Our national discussion of the role of methane (natural gas) in climate change is being conducted with the same kind of statements.

In scientific speak, leaked natural gas is a powerful climate changer for about 12 years in the atmosphere, but the media talks about its impact over 100 years. So instead of saying we need to capture leaking dangerous gas that is around 85 times worse during its 12year potency than carbon dioxide from coal or oil, it is understated as only 25 times worse over 100 years.

The most easily available reference tables are standardized around impact over 100 years because other climate-changing gasses live for thousands of years. Lost in this discussion is our society’s recognition that if we did something about short-lived but potent gasses we would make a big dent in our problem and buy ourselves some time to attack the longer-lived gasses.

Be advised that natural gas is leaking at an alarming rate in many locations around our country.

The first natural municipally owned gas distribution system in the United States was built in Pennsylvania in 1836. Gas was distributed in iron pipe. Iron pipe rusts and breaks when it gets that old. We now have enough natural gas underground pipes just in our own country to go to the moon and back — twice. A lot of this pipe is old and broken.

Until recently it was assumed that the system’s leakage rate was around 1 percent of all gas from the well to your water heater or stove. Then the federal regulatory agency called Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) found that “72 companies reported lost and unaccounted for rates of 10 percent or higher. Two-hundred-and-seventy-five companies had a rate between 3 and 9.9 percent.”

One study of the Washington, D.C, pipes found 5,893 natural gas leaks.If you want to see a startling view of the problem, Google “image Boston gas leaks” where photos of a joint MIT and Duke University project will appear. In Boston, the leaked natural gas is worth about $90 million annually. It is estimated that about one-third of all methane leakage nationally occurs in the pipes close to our homes.

All of this points to a national — indeed, a global — very powerful contributor to climate change that can only be solved at the local level.

Natural gas will play an important role in our nation’s future if managed with an eye toward the good it can do and the risks it presents. Some of the local companies that manage the distribution channels of the gas industry are like that young lady who has such great promise, and yet needs closer supervision than she might desire. We need to celebrate good role models and guard against risky behavior in both cases.

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.

Dr. Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis.