How Your Local Utility May be Pouring Gas on the Climate Changing Fire
by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
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 recordand 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 6 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 6 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 that 6 drinks over 6 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 twelve 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 12 year 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 gases 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% 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."
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.
Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)
, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007,
Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Scientific American August 1, 2013 How Much Natural Gas Leaks?