In the vast web of natural gas pipes beneath America's streets, leaks are a persistent challenge, with significant implications for our climate.
Major leaks are typically fixed promptly. But when sufficient resources aren't provided for repairs, other leaks can go on for months or years.
Leaks add to global warming
In addition to wasting a source of energy, leaked natural gas – mostly methane – is a powerful greenhouse gas. It is a significant contributor to climate change.
That makes it essential for gas utilities, and the regulators and public officials that oversee them, to act swiftly and decisively to repair and prevent all methane leaks.
The gas utilities' pipe systems are just one link in the national gas supply chain that brings gas from the well to your home. Leaks are an issue at every stage, starting at the wellhead. That's why we're addressing leaks throughout the system.
Why aren't all leaks fixed?
Utility companies are required by law to inspect their lines for safety and fix safety problems within a specified time. But these rules don't require the repair of all leaks.
Other rules governing how – and how much – they can charge customers make it hard to invest in the major pipeline upgrades needed to prevent leaks.
Utilities need permission from a state public utility commission to raise rates in order to pay for repairs or upgrades. It's a slow process and regulators can be reluctant to increase costs to ratepayers.
What about safety and health?
Most leaks don't pose an immediate threat to safety, but some can. We have shared the maps and leak indicators with local gas companies.
If you ever smell gas, or have any reason to suspect a problem, experts say to immediately exit the building or area. Don't light matches or smoke, and don't use any electrical devices, including a phone, until you are away from the suspected leak. Then, call your local utility.
The major health concern about outdoor methane leaks is that they contribute to smog, which aggravates asthma and other respiratory conditions.
What needs to change?
Better awareness of the impact of methane leaks is a first step, and this mapping pilot project is a start. But we have more work to do.