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We Can Stop Climate Change

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D. 

Local communities and major corporations both have an unrecognized chance to reverse the trends in climate change/global warming dramatically.  And it's not about buying a smaller car, or using less electricity.  

This opportunity exists because according to the scientists one of the major gasses causing problems only lives around 12 years[1].  If we can stop adding this one gas to the environment we could rather quickly see a slowing of the damage it causes.
 
Think of our environment like a campfire.   If you want to make it burn slow and steady, you add wood one log at a time.  If you want to make the fire burn explosively, you pour gasoline on it.  If you stop adding gasoline, the fire will simmer down.
 
The "gasoline" of climate change/global warming is leaking methane (natural gas) - and we can stop pouring into our atmosphere.

As the gas companies are fond of telling us, when burned in our homes, factories and power plants natural gas is only half as climate changing as coal.    They are right - if the gas is burned.
 
However, if natural gas leaks from wells or pipes, it is between 150 and 200 times worse over its 12 year lifetime than burning coal![2],[3]

We don't need to use less of it. We need to waste less of it.   Stop the leaks and in 12 years things begin to get better,  and buy us some time to solve other difficult problems - like replacing coal altogether.
 
There are several different problem areas where natural gas leaks occur.  
 
In our country there are over 210 different major gas systems joined into 305,000 miles of big transmission pipelines (kind of like the interstate highway system of gas) which feed 2,100,000 miles of smaller pipes under America's older city streets.[4],[5] Some of the larger pipes have been replaced or repaired, but we still have "miles to go" before that is completed.  Additionally, many of the millions of miles of smaller pipe which were installed in the 1930's and 1940's leak - a lot.  Here is the results of one leak survey done by community activists in New York City.

Photo use with permission of DamascusCitizens.org - click here to go to full report and other images
 
Over the past 5 years, estimates of the leakage rates have soared as new leak detection equipment is put in place and as growing concern has led to more inspections.   The most recent report[6] says that the leaks in parts of the system could be as much as eight times worse than previously believed.[7]

Phillips, N.G., et al., Mapping urban pipeline leaks: Methane leaks across Boston, Environmental Pollution Journal (2012)

One statement that one hears fairly often from the gas companies is some version of "Are you kidding me?  Selling gas is how we make money...do you think we would simply let it leak?"    The other side of the aisle responds with some version of "Well, gas companies are allowed to include in your bills to customers lost and unaccounted for gas, which removes some incentive"[8], and "You are in business to make money.  If you have a large leak that is cheap to fix, the profit motive will see that it gets attention - but if you have lots of little leaks that are expensive to fix, the financial incentive works the other way."
 
Fortunately, new leak sealing techniques are being invented regularly
 
The most difficult problem to solve is old and abandoned wells, some dating back to the 1800's. A 2014 Princeton University study found that between 28,000 and 970,000 abandoned gas wells exist just in in Pennsylvania alone.  Scientists looked at a number of these, and found every abandon well inspected was leaking.[9]
 
As is the case with much environmental pollution, responsible parties may be long gone, or bankrupt.
 
Fixing this will probably require the creation of something similar to the Superfund program, a federal program created in 1980 to fix abandon toxic waste sites.A start has been made on this, because about half of the states have programs that collect fees from drillers of new wells to plug abandon old and abandon wells, but the total amount collected is nowhere near the amount needed to solve the problem.[10]
 
Around two-thirds of all natural gas plumbing in the entire world is in the United States.  If we all agree to fix all the leaks in our local area, and the major companies partner with the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the leaks at drilling sites and big pipelines, and plug the old and abandon wells, over 12 years we can significantly reduce the global trend toward more violent weather, increase national food security, and keep our atmosphere pure.
 
There is good news on another front.   Scientists have long reported that cows passing gas cause a good bit of the methane in the atmosphere. In August of 2015 Penn State scientists announced that a modest change in cow food results in between 30% to 60% reduction in gas from this source.(11)
 
The fact that we now know we can control this damage to our world presents us with a moral duty - we can continue to allow companies and municipal utilities to pour fuel on the rapidly growing fire, or we can make them stop the waste of energy and money that endangers everything we hold dear.

[1] IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Table 2.14, Chap. 2, p. 212
[2] Calculated from the 20 year life found in IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Table 2.14, Chap. 2, p. 212
[3] IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Table 2.14, Chap. 2, p. 212
[4] http://www.ingaa.org/File.aspx?id=10751
[5] https://www.aga.org/about-natural-gas
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/science/methane-leaks-may-greatly-exceed-estimates-report-says.html?_r=0
[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/19/science/methane-leaks-in-natural-gas-supply-chain-far-exceed-estimates-study-says.html
[8] http://www.damascuscitizensforsustainability.org/2013/03/manhattan-natural-gas-pipeline-emissions-final-report/
[9] http://dataspace.princeton.edu/jspui/bitstream/88435/dsp019s1616326/1/
   Kang_princeton_0181D_10969.pdf
[10] http://www.cantonrep.com/article/20150716/SPECIAL-REPORTS/150719981
(11) An inhibitor persistently decreased enteric methane emission from dairy cows with no negative effect on milk production. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201504124 DOI:

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