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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Power Shift - Rampant City Gas Leaks

Air Date: Week of

The natural gas business is booming- sometimes with deadly results. Bruce Gellerman sniffs out the cracks in the nearly two million miles of pipeline that run under our cities, including leaks near the Massachusetts State House.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Natural Gas - it burns cleaner than coal or oil. It’s cheap and convenient---it’s right at your finger tips.


GELLERMAN: 65 million American households use natural gas to heat and cook. And thanks to the mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing, supply is soaring and so is demand. The International Energy Agency says we’re on the verge of “the golden age of natural gas”, that promises to transform the world’s energy economy. It’s a bridge fuel to the future.

But delivering on natural gas’s promise, and distributing trillions of cubic feet through a maze of millions of miles of pipelines is fraught with so many potential problems and real dangers that critics say: natural gas might be a bridge too far.


GELLERMAN: My investigation led me to natural gas sleuth Nathan Phillips. I followed him up a steep, secretive flight of stairs at Boston University.

Professor Phillips points to a gas leak on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue detected using the sniff method. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


PHILLIPS: So this is a part of BU that almost no one sees.


GELLERMAN: Professor Phillips is director of the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. He unlocks stairway doors leading to his rooftop lab.

PHILLIPS: This is kind of what we would consider an urban laboratory.


GELLERMAN: Phillips studies a city the way a biologist studies an organism - as a complex, living, breathing thing.

PHILLIPS: So we’re about, I think, something like 110 feet off the ground now on top of the College of Arts and Sciences Building at Boston University.

GELLERMAN: What a great view! We can see all the way into Charles - into Boston - it’s Fenway Park there!

Boston University Professor Nathan Phillips with his CO2 and methane measuring instruments. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

PHILLIPS: That’s right, that’s right. And so, in the back there, is what we call the urban metabolism meter or sensor. And so that kind of contraption there on that little mast is measuring the carbon dioxide level and the methane concentration as it passes by that meter. We call it the pulse of the city. It gives us information about where humans are and what they’re doing, where the natural systems and what they’re doing at any time of day. We’re measuring this 10 times a second, every minute, every hour, 24/7, 365 days a year.

GELLERMAN: From this vantage point, using sophisticated instruments Professor Phillips takes the pulse of the city - precisely measuring urban metabolism: the emissions of greenhouse gases produced by the comings and goings of cars and trucks, the burning of fuels to power factories and utilities, heat homes and office buildings.

In terms of global warming, molecule for molecule, methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It’s odorless, colorless, lighter than air - and combustible, which is why methane is so useful. It’s the major component of natural gas.


GELELRMAN: Below the streets of our nation’s cities snakes a massive network of natural gas pipelines - more than two million miles of low pressure pipes. But weather, water, and accidents all take their toll on these gas distribution pipes, creating problems that most of the time are out of sight and mind - but literally under our noses.


GELLERMAN: Professor Nathan Philips stands on Boston’s Commonwealth Ave, not far from Fenway Park, and uses another sensitive measuring device to monitor for methane: his nose.


GELLERMAN: Leaks in the gas distribution pipeline network costs billions of dollars a year in property damage, explosions kill people and methane contributes to climate change. In fact, critics say so much of the powerful greenhouse gas leaks into the atmosphere that, over the short term, natural gas may disrupt the climate more than oil or coal.

PHILLIPS: About 9 months since I became aware of this problem, and ever since then I’ve started to, you know, keep a smell out for - well I guess you’d say leaks.

GELLERMAN: And right there, in the street - by the curb - there’s the tell-tale smell.

PHILLIPS: So mercaptan is the substance they put in natural gas so that if there is a leak people can smell that. And…

Detecting Gas Leaks in Boston (Video Courtesy BU Today, Boston University)

Watch this video on YouTube


GELLERMAN: I smell a leak.


PHILLIPS: Yes; Everyone I talk to… many people I talk to know about a leak, they say: ‘Oh there’s one just down the street from me.’ And really, we have a million anecdotes about leaks but when you put it all together and map it it’s pretty amazing how many leaks there are distributed over a city like Boston.

GELLERMAN: And mapping Boston for leaks is just what Nathan Phillips did. He drove around the city with pipeline expert Bob Ackley.

Bob Ackley and his Picarro methane detecting device. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

ACKLEY: Okay, we’re going to go right up Harvard street to Commonwealth Ave and we’ll go right up Commonwealth Ave to Kenmore Square.

GELLERMAN: Bob Ackley is a former gas company leak investigator. Now he runs a consulting firm: Gas Safety USA – and on his truck is a sensitive Picarro methane tracking device similar to the one Professor Phillips uses at his rooftop lab. You’ve got two special pipes - nostrils I guess - on the front end of your SUV - here, what are those?

ACKLEY: Well that draws in an air sample from ground level and tests it with my gas ionization unit so I’ll be able to drive down the street and detect gas and I also have one on the rear for my Picarro instrument that will actually document the methane readings on Google Earth. It tracks them and will place them via GPS point, so I can take a running sample from the ground and it will chart it right on Google Earth.

PHILLIPS: Okay, we’re at Commonwealth and Gloucester…five point three …okay, lots of leaks here…two point two….

GELLERMAN: The natural background level of methane is two parts per million but as Ackley and Phillips drive around the area where I had smelled a leak, the digital readout jumps.


PHILLIPS: Two point seven…two point eight….oh, five point two….Okay, so there was a big spike that we just… 11 point one! So that’s over about five times the global background value! Back down to two point four, so very noisy in here - five point four…this is one of those, what we call an area of neglect.

GELLERMAN: The team also drove around San Francisco mapping gas leaks.

PHILLIPS: What we see are some clean streets and then streets that have been neglected - so leak, leak, leak as you drive through… it’s kind of a hodge podge.

GELLERMAN: Some of the methane leaks Nathan Phillips and Bob Ackley detected measure 30 parts per million ---that’s 15 times the natural background level. But Ackley says even small leaks can quickly add up to a large volume.

ACKLEY: Well, we’ve captured as much as, I think it is around, 600 cubic feet a day out of a leak…so, I mean, the average household use about 200 feet. So that would be three days of gas leaking out of one leak in one day.

PHILLIPS: I was very surprised to see how many leaks there were.


GELLERMAN: One reason Professor Nathan Phillips was surprised is because Boston’s gas utility spent 71 million dollars making the system more efficient, but just last year - it’s estimated gas lost from leaks was worth more then 40 million dollars.

PHILLIPS: I wasn’t expecting to see anything like what we saw.

GELLERMAN: You’d expect that a gas company would want to fix their leaks because they’re losing gas, they’re losing money.

PHILLIPS: Well, the costs of the leaks are not borne by the industry. They are borne by the rate payers, so you and I – to the extent that we are using gas, we’re bearing the costs of the inefficiencies in the system.

Detecting Gas Leak Damage to Trees in Newton, MA (Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust)

GELLERMAN: How much…what kind of percentage…a guestimate of the gas that is going thru these pipes is leaking to the atmosphere?

PHILLIPS: That’s a big unknown. So the industry is required to report what they call “lost and unaccounted gas” to the federal government. The amount of unaccounted and lost gas reported to the Energy Information Administration is all over the map.

GELLERMAN: Neither the Pipeline Hazardous Safety Materials Administration - the federal agency in charge of gas pipes - nor National Grid - the largest natural gas utility in New England - would talk with me about gas leaks.

But I did speak with Mark McDonald. He used to inspect leaks for National Grid and now heads the New England Gas Workers Association, which had to file a lawsuit to learn how many gas leaks were reported by Massachusetts utilities.

MCDONALD: Right now it’s generally three-four percent of all gas in the distribution site is lost.

GELLERMAN: You estimate there are 22 thousand gas leaks in Massachusetts?

MCDONALD: That’s not an estimation, that’s exact. I have documentation from each gas company showing at least 22 thousand. Now that makes up 90 percent of the companies in Massachusetts. So that number is even higher. I would probably guess around 25 thousand - and there are many that haven’t even been detected, I’m sure. So it’s significant. It’s definitely significant.

GELLERMAN: Most leaks are small – the size of pinholes - gas utilities rank them a three on a scale from one to three. Some are twos, they’re leaks to watch and schedule for repair, but a three can quickly turn into a two, and a two into a deadly one. It’s what happened in Philadelphia.

[AUDIO FROM TV NEWS: With daylight a crater of clues from this explosion in a neighborhood where reported smelling gas… EXPLOSION... MAN: Boom…the corner store just went up…]

GELLERMAN: One gas worker died, six were injured. That was in January 2011. And that September, it happened in Seattle …

[AUDIO FROM TV NEWS: The couple went to the hospital with serious injuries after the natural gas explosion utterly wiped out their home. Investigators now believe the huge fireball may be linked to a tiny discovery. We have excavated the pipe and there is a small leak consistent with what we found.]


GELLERMAN: Homes within a five-mile radius were evacuated. Four other gas pipeline leaks were discovered. Less dramatic, but also deadly is the effect tiny gas leaks in the ground can have on nearby plants. Environmental professor Nathan Phillips says natural gas leaks disrupt the urban metabolism.

PHILLIPS: What we know is bad for many trees is they need oxygen in the soil.

GELLERMAN: Phillips says just like people need oxygen, so do the roots of plants. When natural gas leaks into the ground it displaces oxygen in the soil, and dries the earth. Trees near natural gas leaks can choke and die of thirst.

PHILLIPS: The most active part of the root system are the fine roots, and those are the first to go – they’re delicate, but they’re the workhorses that bring in the nutrients, bring in the water. And if they starve and start dying you’re cutting off the supply system for the rest of the tree.

ACKLEY: So it’s basically a killing of the roots.

GELLERMAN: Gas leak investigator Bob Ackley says before the invention of gas detectors, inspectors located underground leaks by looking for damaged vegetation. He says it’s still a valuable clue.

ACKLEY: And that’s what you look for in a vegetation survey is a tree that looks like it’s dying, a tree is dead and dying vegetation. And all the gas companies have it on their web site; a sign of a gas leak is dead and dying vegetation for no apparent reason.

GELLERMAN: So, one tree, how much can one tree be worth? How do you put a value on a tree?

ACKLEY: Well the arborists have a formula they call the trunk formula method whereby the go by the species, condition and location of the tree, and I’ll give you just give you a quick example - we have a tree over by LaSalle College in Newton that’s about a 50 inch beech tree---that I think we valued it at around 47 thousand dollars.

GELLERMAN: That’s one tree. Take hundreds - or thousands of trees damaged by gas leaks and you talking: a lawsuit. Attorney Jan Schlictmann.

SCHLICTMANN: The trees you know are sentinels.

GELLERMAN: Schlictmann and Bob Ackley have created The Massachusetts Public Shade Trust, surveying suburban Boston communities – charting trees damaged from leaks.

SCHLICTMANN: The trees are telling us something. They are sending out, you know, a loud signal to us that if it’s killing them then it’s killing the quality and the health and the safety of life in the urban environment.

GELLERMAN: Attorney Jan Schlictmann is best known for his environmental lawsuit chronicled in the book and movie “A Civil Action.” Now Schlictmann is suing gas utility National Grid, on behalf of five Massachusetts cities seeking compensation for the alleged damage gas leaks do to their trees.

SCHLICTMANN: So it’s doing great damage to these old stately trees and then when they die, the double tragedy is, that often times, these wonderful trees are cut down, replaced with a sapling then the sapling doesn’t thrive and then eventually dies as well and you have this repetitive process with the cities and towns and land owners not being aware of the root cause of the problem.


EHRLICH: Hey Bruce come over here. This is just one of the leaks I can smell around the building.

GELLERMAN: The building is the gold domed Massachusetts Statehouse. And sniffing out the leaks in the street behind it is Representative Lori Ehrlich. The Statehouse is the nation’s oldest - so are some of the underground gas pipes here, and they’re leaky.

EHRLICH: We’re standing here on the corner of Hancock and Mount Vernon street and though I’m concerned about this leak there are many leaks around the building. But even more of concerned are the four stories residential dwellings that are right next to the leak that I’d be most concerned about.

A leak next the the Massachusetts Statehouse is 8.3 ppm methane, four times the normal background level. (Photo: Nathan Phillips/ Boston University)

GELLERMAN: This is iconic, this is Beacon Hill - it doesn’t get more plush and powerful - and yet we’ve got leaks right here?

EHRLICH: Well, perhaps it’s a message to the legislators in the building that it’s time to pass some legislation addressing this issue. This is the second session that I’ve proposed four bills that deal directly with this issue, and the fact that we have a leak and many other leaks right outside the Statehouse, I think, just elevates it to a point where we need to do something about it before more people are killed, before property is damaged, before trees are killed and before we have a much bigger problem.

GELLERMAN: Just a few months before this interview behind the Statehouse, two blocks away, gas leak explosions sent two manholes covers flying, and shattered windows.

Representative Ehrlich’s bills would require that Massachusetts gas utilities fix all of 25 thousand leaks in their pipes within three years, and compensate cities and property owners for the damaged methane does to trees and plants. Tom Kiley is president of the Northeast Gas Association.

KILEY: We oppose those bills for a variety of reasons. A lot of them, economics and a lot of it because we feel it’s truly unnecessary to do that. Ah clearly the safety of our customers, and the consumer and residences is paramount of the natural gas industries, but we feel the cost that would be added to this are unnecessary and wouldn’t achieve the goals that the people have, and gas companies do have aggressive programs to make repairs, to replace cast iron and bare steel mains and other programs.

GELLERMAN: It can cost gas companies a million dollars a mile or more to replace leaking pipes, but it can take decades. And, critics say, in the meantime customers are paying for the leaked gas and the pipes are dangerous.

Some of the pipes are 100 years old and made of cast iron. In the 1950’s utilities began replacing them with bare steel pipes, but gas corroded them, so they were replaced with coated steel pipes. Gas leak investigator Bob Ackerly says the problem is nationwide.

ACKERLY: I’m traveling down to Washington DC this weekend. I’ve already been down there and done some spot checks, the problem is just as bad or worse with the rotting steel. So, wherever there’s cast iron and old steel in the ground, you’re going to have a problem.

GELERMAN: Since the 1970’s utilities have been laying underground pipe made of polyethylene or plastic: it’s flexible, easy to handle and install, and it doesn’t corrode. But it does crack and unlike cast iron which can last a century, Mark McDonald of the New England Gas Workers Association says plastic is only good for about 45 years.

MCDONALD: The companies believe it’s going to last forever. We’re already replacing it. The number one problem with polyethelyne, it has no resistance to damage, so the more plastic you put in the more problems you’re going to have with people digging around natural gas lines. It’s a major problem, it's going to get larger. The more plastic you put in the bigger that their problem is going to get.

GELLERMAN: Accidents are the single biggest cause of pipeline damage - from backhoes and jack hammers used by road construction crews, and workers laying electric lines and cables. The message: dig safe - and sniff.

ACKLEY: I’m at about three point four right at the leak I think it was up to six if I pull up a little bit.

GELLERMAN: Leak expert Bob Ackley says if you smell something, say something, which is exactly what he does after measuring the leak behind the Massachusetts Statehouse.

ACKLEY: I would grade this one if it were my house definitely a grade one leak. I mean, I’d want it repaired immediately. It’s a hazard - so I’m going to call the leak into National Grid now and just make sure everything is okay here.


ACKLEY: Hi, Bob Ackley here, I just want to report a gas odor in Boston by the Statehouse…

[MUSIC: Pink Floyd “Terminal Frost” from Momentary Lapse Of Reason (EMI Records 2011 reissue).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up next week - from problems with low-pressure neighborhood gas pipelines to the dangers of the really big ones.

GALLAGHER: Bringing a 42-inch high pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. I mean, It’s not a question of if something happens, it’s a question of when.



EPA on Methane

National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives

Pipeline Safety Action Plan

The Transportation of Natural Gas


2011 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report


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