Why gas leaks in Washington are bad news for everybody

Phil McKenna in Matter2014/03/14674

Study shows the streets of DC are riddled with leaky pipes—highlighting a triple threat to us all.

Early last year I picked up the phone to talk to Nathan Phillips and Bob Ackley, the unlikely duo at the heart of Uprising, my MATTER story on the astounding levels of methane emissions under Boston. The pair—Phillips, a professor at Boston University, and Ackley, a gas industry veteran-turned-whistleblower—were together that morning in Washington DC, conducting a secret survey of the amount of gas leaking from under the streets of the nation’s capital.

Their work had already uncovered a huge problem in Massachusetts, which showed that pipelines under the city streets were leaking enough methane not only to kill surrounding trees, but to raise serious questions about natural gas’s reputation as a green fuel.

But when I asked Phillips what they were finding in DC, he gave me the usual scientist-speak about preliminary findings and interesting results.

When Ackley took the phone, however, he could hardly contain himself.

“Phil, there is a major shitstorm coming,” he told me.

He wasn’t kidding.

Today sees the release of their survey, part of a study led by Robert Jackson of Duke University. And that early summation rings more true than ever.

Example leaks around Capitol Hill. Each yellow bar represents a leak—AMBIENT AIR IS 2 PPM.

The Duke team found a total of nearly 5,900 leaks underneath Washington, compared to 3,300 in Boston.

It’s not just the sheer number of leaks: The study, which is being published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology is astonishing in other ways, too. Not only were there more leaks than Boston, but the study also found higher concentrations of methane in DC. A dozen leaks there posed a serious explosion hazard, and some meant the air inside a manhole was as much as 50% methane—ten times the level usually marked as an explosion risk. Random tests, meanwhile, showed some leaks that were the equivalent of seven homes pumping their entire gas supply straight out into the air.

A 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, left eight people dead.

Explosion risks are only one part of the picture. As Uprising made clear, this problem poses a triple threat: explosions that leave people dead, a direct and deadening impact on the surrounding environment, and a substantial increase in dangerous greenhouse gases (methane is one of the most potent ones there is.)

The Washington study shows that this is happening in all sorts of places, at scales we only previously imagined… and what’s worse is that in many cases gas utilities have very little incentive to fix the problem.

“I’ve never seen so many gas leaks in my life,” Ackley told me, in that phone call from the streets of the capital. What we know now is that his observations were just the beginnings of a major scandal that is happening right underneath us all.

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