Methane in Massachusetts: Mapping Natural Gas Leaks

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever federal regulations to cut methane emissions from the nation’s oil and natural-gas industry. Now, thanks to a Cambridge based nonprofit, HEET, we can finally see troublesome methane leaks in maps of the areas where we live and work in Massachusetts.

Boston, MA National Grid of reported gas leaks.

“Repairing gas leaks should be a top priority in a state with aging pipeline infrastructure,” said Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead).

Here in Massachusetts—a state with little fracking or oil drilling—most methane emissions come from leaks in our aging natural gas pipelines. Now, thanks to a Cambridge based nonprofit, HEET, we can finally see these leaks in maps of the areas where we live and work.

In March 2015, Massachusetts’ utilities were mandated for the first time to release data to the Department of Public Utilities about natural gas leaks in their territories. These reports included addresses of known and not yet repaired leaks, as well as the dates when the leaks were first reported to the utilities. HEET used these reports to map all the unrepaired natural gas leaks for 200 municipalities in Massachusetts (all of Eversource, National Grid and Columbia Gas territory). Clicking on any pin on these maps will reveal the year the leak was first reported to the utility, as well as the exact address. Only leaks that are considered potentially explosive or are near a building’s foundation (“Grade One”and “Grade Two” leaks), are legally required to be fixed. Since the utilities can pass the cost of the wasted gas onto the ratepayers by factoring it into the price paid per therm, they are not financially motivated to repair Grade Three leaks.

Because of the lack of incentives, some of these Grade Three leaks are decades old. In Boston, at the corner of Park Drive and Beacon Street, near Ruggles Baptist Church, is a leak that was first reported to National Grid in 1985 and, in the 30 years since, has not fixed it.

“Repairing gas leaks should be a top priority in a state with aging pipeline infrastructure,” said Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead). “These leaks squander ratepayers’ money and waste huge amounts of natural gas at a time when some people are arguing we need more gas piped in to meet our need.”

Leaking gas as it percolates through the soil can kill nearby trees; in the air is creates ground-level ozone (a human health hazard); and in the atmosphere it is a remarkably potent greenhouse gas. Boston University Professor Nathan Phillips, a researcher who has published extensively on the subject, calculated the emissions from the leaked gas in the state to be equivalent to 10% of the state’s inventory of greenhouse gasses.

Now anyone in Columbia Gas, Eversource or National Grid gas territory can go to SqueakyLeak.org to zoom in on their home, business or school. They can look at the city of Quincy with its 613 leaks (the oldest unrepaired leak being 23 years old) or at Brookline with 351 leaks (the oldest leak being 20 years old).

There is also the possibility that the new proposed pipelines coming into the Boston area might increase the rate of the existing leaks dramatically. One public document from National Grid plans to use the gas from the West Roxbury pipeline to raise the pressure in the local area from 22 PSI to 70 PSI. Through simple physics, this increased pressure would more than triple the amount of gas leaked out and potentially create new leaks.

The shock value of these HEET maps might help increase the outcry against these new pipes and help Massachusetts reduce its methane emissions along with the rest of the country, instead of dramatically increasing those emissions.

To see a list of the exact locations of the 217 municipalities with unrepaired leaks in the Massachusetts area please follow this link:
Methane Gas Leaks

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Audrey Schulman
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