Study: Gas leaks more common among low-income neighborhoods and communities of color
(WASHINGTON) A new study published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology reveals that in U.S. cities, natural gas pipeline leaks are more prevalent in neighborhoods whose populations are predominately low-income or people of color.
“Gas pipeline leaks pose a safety risk and release harmful climate pollution, and it’s clear this problem can be worse for communities of color and low-income households,” said Erin Murphy, Senior Attorney with Environmental Defense Fund. “Stronger oversight of gas pipeline leaks is needed to combat the climate crisis, build healthier communities and advance environmental justice.”
For the study, researchers compared census data with gas leak data collected by EDF, Colorado State University and Google Earth Outreach between 2014 and 2018. On average, the density of gas leaks increased nearly 40% among communities of color compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. Similarly, leak densities were found to be approximately 25% lower in high-income neighborhoods than in the average-income neighborhoods.
Natural gas is mostly methane — a potentially explosive and very potent greenhouse gas responsible for over a quarter of current global warming. Methane gas leaks on local pipeline systems are carefully regulated for safety, but many leaks are allowed to continue unaddressed for years — during which time they continue to emit climate pollution and can become hazardous.
“There are clear paths utility companies can take to address the issue,” said Joseph von Fischer, professor at Colorado State University and one of the study's authors. “For example, they could conduct analyses of leaks on their systems and factor in demographic information when making decisions about infrastructure management.”
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency that oversees these pipelines, is currently in the process of setting new standards that will require pipeline operators to use advanced leak detection technology to find and fix methane leaks in the pipelines. However, those standards have yet to be finalized and implemented. This research indicates such standards are urgently needed in order to help address these inequities.
The study also indicates a need for gas utilities and regulators to take a holistic approach to gas system planning, including using demographic data to address injustices and reduce burdens on communities who may be disproportionately impacted by gas distribution infrastructure.
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