destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Unnatural Disasters

Guest blog by Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group

Roughly half of the homes in America use gas for providing heat, hot water or powering appliances. If you use gas in your home, you know that leaks are bad – they waste money, they pollute the air, and, if exposed to a spark, they could spell disaster.

Our homes, however, are only the end point of a vast production and transportation system that brings gas through a network of pipelines all the way from the wellhead to our kitchens. There are opportunities for wasteful and often dangerous leaks all along the way – leaks that threaten the public’s health and safety and contribute to climate change.

How frequent are gas leaks?

Between January 2010 and November 2018, there were a reported 1,888 incidents that involved a serious injury, fatality or major financial loss related to gas leaks in the production, transmission and distribution system, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents caused 86 deaths, 487 injuries and over $1 billion in costs.

When gas lines leak, rupture, or are otherwise damaged, the gas released can explode, sometimes right in our own backyards. Roughly one in seven of the incidents referenced above – 260 in total – involved an explosion.

In September 2018, for example, a series of explosions in three Massachusetts communities caused one death, numerous injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. And there are many more stories like it from communities across the U.S. From the 2010 pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes to the 2014 disaster in New York City that destroyed two five-story buildings and killed eight people, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by gas.

The financial and environmental costs

Gas leaks are also a sheer waste of resources. While some gas is released deliberately in the gas production process, large amounts are released unintentionally due to malfunctioning equipment, corrosion and natural causes like flooding. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 123,692 million cubic feet of gas were lost in 2017 alone, enough to power over 1 million homes for an entire year. That amount is likely an underestimate. On top of the major leaks reported to the government agency in charge of pipeline safety, many of our cities’ aging gas systems are riddled with smaller leaks, making it tricky to quantify just how much gas is lost from leaks in our nation’s gas system.

Leaks also threaten the stability of our climate because they release large amounts of methane, the main component of gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Gas is not the “cleaner” alternative to coal that the industry often makes it out to be. The amount of methane released during production and distribution is enough to reduce or even negate its greenhouse gas advantage over coal. The total estimated methane emissions from U.S. gas systems have roughly the same global warming impact over a 20-year period as all the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants in 2015 – and methane emissions are likely higher than this amount, which is self-reported by the industry.

In most states, there is no strong incentive for gas companies to reduce the amount of leaked gas because they can still charge customers for it through “purchased gas adjustment clauses.” These costs to consumers are far from trivial. Between 2001 and 2011, Americans paid at least $20 billion for gas that never made it to their homes.

These and other dangers of gas leaks are described in a recent fact sheet by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. At a time when climate change is focusing attention on our energy system, it is critical that communities understand the full range of problems with gas – including the ever-present risk of leaks in the extensive network of infrastructure that brings gas from the well to our homes.

The alternative

We should not be using a fuel that endangers the public’s safety and threatens the stability of our climate. Luckily, we don’t have to. Switching to electric home heating and hot water systems and appliances powered by renewable energy would allow us to move toward eliminating carbon emissions from homes. Electric heat pumps are twice as efficient as gas systems in providing heat and hot water, making them a viable and commonsense replacement. Similarly, as the cost of wind and solar keep falling, they will continue to undercut gas prices in many regions.

It’s time to move beyond gas and create a cleaner, safer energy system.

By Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank part of The Public Interest Network. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

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