An Explosive Situation

Our nation’s capital faces an explosive situation. You can’t see it, but danger lurks beneath the city’s streets.

This map shows where researchers found natural gas leaks under D.C. city streets. Credit: Duke University.

This map shows where researchers found natural gas leaks under D.C. city streets. Credit: Duke University.

Researchers from Duke University and Boston University report finding approximately 5,900 natural gas pipeline leaks under Washington, D.C. The report appears in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

Methane concentrations at some manholes were as high as 500,000 parts per million, or ppm. That’s roughly 10 times more than the threshold for triggering an explosion. The number of explosion risks was small—about a dozen out of the 5,893 leaks mapped in the study. Nonetheless, any explosion of methane in a large city could cause substantial injury and property damage.

If the leaks were part of an action movie, they’d be the result of a rogue team of terrorists. In real life, aging infrastructure is the culprit.

Washington isn’t the only city with problems. Other cities with aging pipelines have problems too. Last year, the research team mapped more than 3,300 natural gas pipeline leaks beneath Boston.

The fact that natural gas is leaking should come as no surprise to either gas companies or those who regulate them. “Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks Cost Consumers Billions,” says the title of a report prepared for Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) last August.

Among other things, the Markey report found:

Gas distribution companies in 2011 reported releasing 69 billion cubic feet of natural gas to the atmosphere, almost enough to meet the state of Maine’s gas needs for a year and equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of about six million automobiles.

Despite knowing about the leaks, companies replaced just 3 percent of their cast iron or bare steel distribution mains in 2012. Those types of mains “leak 18 times more gas than plastic pipes and 57 times more gas than protected steel,” says the Markey report.

Companies have had little incentive to make upgrades as long as they can pass the costs of lost gas along to consumers. In money terms, consumers pay about a billion dollars more per year, reports Forbes. In human terms, the cost is higher. From 2000 to 2012, 116 people died in leak-related explosions.

In November, Senator Markey introduced proposed legislation to speed up the replacement of aging pipeline infrastructure. If enacted, the bills would supplement existing authority for fixing leaky pipes and improving regulation. That authority includes the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011.

Natural gas isn’t just a source of energy. It’s also a greenhouse gas. Stopping the leaks is one instance where it would seem both political parties should come together to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After all, doing nothing is already costing billions of dollars and putting lives in danger.

The leaky pipeline problem also highlights an issue in ongoing energy debates. In Ohio, State Senator Bill Seitz sponsored a bill last year to substantially relax the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. The bill raised rousing criticisms from consumer groups and environmental groups.

Seitz and others have argued that the standards are not necessary any more because there’s plenty of cheap natural gas around. But here’s the thing: Natural gas wouldn’t be so cheap if the providers had to pay for all the infrastructure updates themselves.

This doesn’t mean the pipeline aid programs are a bad idea. To the contrary, they may be very necessary. Without help, companies might delay making repairs longer. They would also probably pass most of the costs along to consumers. That could cause substantial hardship to families who already struggle to pay their heat and other utility bills.

By the same token, politicians and utilities can’t credibly argue against renewable energy and energy efficiency standards on economic grounds. The true cost of fossil fuels is higher than the price that shows up on customers’ heat and electric bills. And the free market isn’t quite as free as many claim. Government programs have long subsidized fossil fuels, and they continue to do so.

To argue otherwise could blow up in politicians’ faces.


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