Methane in Boston

Photo by Paul Keleher. Some rights reserved.

In the arena of energy, America has cemented itself as solidly pro-natural gas, with politicians and corporations alike hailing it as a safe, climate friendly alternative to coal while we search for even greener, friendlier alternatives. As of 2012, 65 million American households use natural gas (which is made up of methane mixed with carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen). However, it has been pointed out in the past that natural gas may not be as environmentally friendly as suggested by its proponents, as the significant amounts of methane that leak from the gas wells and pipelines is enough to offset the benefits of avoiding dirty coal. Methane, as we all know by now, is a greenhouse gas with deadly implications for global warming (ProPublica discovered in 2011 that “Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported”).

The New York Times brought the issue to light yet again today, with a report on methane leaks in the Boston area. Led by Boston University professor Nathan Phillips, a research time recently discovered that Boston, along with other older U.S. cities of the northeast, has an unusually high level of methane leaks due to archaic (some over a century old) low-pressure pipelines beneath the city that are “riddled with leaks.” This loose methane gets into the air and can kill trees and vegetation, cause natural gas explosions, and of course, contribute to the ozone layer that accelerates global warming.

Unfortunately, repairing these pipelines is very expensive – $1 million per mile expensive. With the data Phillips and his team have uncovered, however, it appears that it would be in the city of Boston’s best interest to demand a new set of pipes.

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