The Energy Consumer's Bulletin- a New England energy news blog

Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks: Building a Bigger System Doesn’t Fix the Problem

Posted by Larry Chretien and Eugenia Gibbons on Monday, February 02, 2015 @ 12:06 PM

Beneath our feet is a vast network of natural gas distribution infrastructure. The aging pipes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are among some of the oldest in the region and the nation, which means they are also some of the most leak-prone. We’ve known for some time that the methane (CH4) emitted through natural gas pipeline leaks contributes significantly to global warming. This is because methane is about 35 times more potent than carbon dioxide (C02), trapping a lot more heat in the atmosphere. However, a recent study reveals that natural gas distribution systems are leaking far more methane than previously estimated.

This revelation comes at a time when utility executives and several public officials continue to push for new pipelines, paid for by New England electricity ratepayers, to bring more natural gas into the region to burn in power plants[1]. So, when public officials call for more natural gas, are they going to take commensurate counter measures to ensure that we can get on track to reducing emissions as called for in the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) and the Resilient Rhode Island Act (RRA): 80% by 2050?

natural_gas_pipeline_leaks 
A map showing natural gas emissions across Boston. Source: www.bu.edu/cas/2012/11/20/thousands-of-natural-gas-leaks-discovered-in-boston

We know that saving energy costs far less than buying natural gas (or expanding the distribution system) for heating or for power generation. As we discussed in previous blogs[2], the energy efficiency programs in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have benefits more than three times their costs[3]. Through energy savings, the efficiency programs also reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Obviously, if upgrading a boiler or screwing in an LED-light bulb reduces the burning of fossil fuels, then less carbon dioxide, or C02, is emitted into the atmosphere. But by reducing demand for natural gas, clean energy also avoids the more harmful methane emissions. Efficiency and renewables are integral to achieving the mandates of GWSA and RRA. And fortunately, when New England imports less fossil fuel, we improve our economy.

The Parable of the River

This whole thing reminds us of different ways of thinking about problem solving. Have you heard about the parable of babies in the river? People in a village by a river start seeing babies float by. Being good people, they retrieve the babies and give them homes. But the babies keep coming, more than ever, straining the village’s capacity. So they set up an expensive and complicated apparatus for catching and caring for the babies. Finally one of the villagers comes up with a novel suggestion: “Maybe we should go upstream and find out where the babies are coming from!”

How does the river parable apply to leaky gas pipes and the legislated emission reduction goals in MA and RI? We do ourselves a huge disservice by overlooking the leak problem while contemplating an increase in the size of our already leaky distribution network. Instead of potentially exacerbating our over-reliance on a dirty fuel, we should be looking at how to give full credit to energy efficiency and renewable energy for the methane they avoid and fossil fuel consumption they reduce. Failure to do so provides an implicit but deep and unwarranted subsidy to natural gas; one that will be paid for by ratepayers and taxpayers of New England for decades to come. 

Both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have taken steps to account for and reduce the CO2 (or equivalent) emissions that go up the stacks at the homes, businesses, and power plants in each state. Laudably, both states are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an effective approach at reducing greenhouse gases emitted by power plants in the Northeast. Both states have also mandated ambitious economy-wide greenhouse gas reductions of 80% by 2050. Both states have also undertaken impressive and nation-leading energy efficiency strategies as part of the plan to achieve these goals. And both have committed to integrating more renewables into the energy mix. But failing to properly account for methane leaking from the aging infrastructure under our feet, or worse, to commit ratepayers to the expense of increasing the distribution network without first addressing its flaws, undermines all of the aforementioned gains, goals, promises and commitments.

Getting back to the parable of the river, until we properly account for methane leaking from the aging infrastructure under our feet, or the fugitive emissions from oil and gas wells, we are not truly addressing the problem.


[1] It would be unprecedented to charge electricity consumers for a gas pipeline. Proposals being floated by pipeline proponents would have electricity ratepayers footing the bill many years to come.

[2] See Mass Energy’s Take on Electricity Rate Increases or Some Math Showing Our Huge Under-Investment in Energy Efficiency

[3] For Rhode Island - http://www.rieermc.ri.gov/annualreport/.   For Massachusetts - http://ma-eeac.org/results-reporting/annual-reports/.

Tags: Energy policy & advocacy, Massachusetts, Energy efficiency

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