BOSTON - Methane gas – commonly referred to as “natural” gas – has been piped through our communities for a century, and for just as long, it has been causing dangerous leaks. Recognizing this problem, the Biden administration announced last week it's developing safety regulations that aim to reduce methane emissions from gas pipeline systems and the bipartisan infrastructure law provides $1 billion in funding to fix methane leaks. On Thursday, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group released a new report that finds the United States had almost 2,600 gas pipeline leaks from 2010 through nearly the end of 2021 that were serious enough to require reporting to the federal government. That’s the equivalent to one every 40 hours.
“For as long as we have used methane gas to heat and cook in our homes, it has posed a risk both to people who heat their homes with it and those who live in neighborhoods above gas pipes,” said Matt Casale, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Environment Campaigns director and co-author of the report. “House explosions and leaking pipelines aren’t isolated incidents – they’re the result of an energy system that pipes dangerous, explosive gas across the country and through our neighborhoods. It’s time to move away from gas in this country and toward safer, cleaner electrification and renewable energy.”
Of the nearly 2,600 incidents between 2010 and 2021, 850 resulted in fires and 328 in an explosion. Those incidents killed 122 people and injured more than 600. The total costs to communities from things such as property damage, emergency services, and the value of intentionally and unintentionally released gas, totaled nearly $4 billion. These incidents also resulted in the leakage of 26.6 billion cubic feet of gas, the global warming-emissions equivalent to over 2.4 million passenger vehicles driven for a year.
The serious pipeline incidents addressed in the report represent just a fraction of the leaks that happen during gas production, transportation and burning. Smaller gas leaks are rife in urban areas, while large methane leaks from oil and gas production threaten the climate. A study from 2018 found that leaks from gas lines over the previous two decades had nearly doubled the climate impact of gas. In addition, some serious gas explosions that have caused death or injury are not included in the data as they did not occur in the pipeline system.
“Leaks, fires and explosions are reminders that transporting methane gas is dangerous business,” said Tony Dutzik, associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group and lead author of the report. “The incidents included in this report were caused by a wide variety of factors, from operator errors to equipment failures, and excavation damage to natural causes. Fully protecting the public requires us to reduce our dependence on gas.”
The report recommends that the U.S. stop relying on methane gas for home heating and cooking as well as electricity generation. Instead, policy makers should incentivize and accelerate the transition to all-electric buildings and renewable energy. During the transition, the report recommends that gas infrastructure investments focus on fixing leaks.
“When rooftop solar panels can power an induction cooktop or electric heat pump, it becomes increasingly unacceptable to saddle society with the risks of pumping methane into our homes and throughout our communities,” said Johanna Neumann, senior director of Environment America Research & Policy Center’s campaign for 100% renewable energy. “It’s time to leave explosive and polluting fossil fuels like methane behind and embrace a future powered by 100% renewable energy.”