Consumer Program Director, MASSPIRG Education Fund
Consumer Program Director, MASSPIRG Education Fund
Report: Damaging methane gas pipeline leaks happen every 40 hours in the U.S.
Frequent gas leaks result in death and injury, damaging our health and environment
BOSTON, MA—Methane gas—marketed as “natural” gas—has been piped through our communities for heating and cooking for over a century, and, for just as long, has been leaking. On Thursday, MASSPIRG Education Fund, Environment Massachusetts, and Frontier Group released a new report that finds from 2010 through nearly the end of 2021, almost 2,600 gas pipeline incidents occurred in the United States that were serious enough to require reporting to the federal government. That’s the equivalent to one every 40 hours. They were joined at the press conference by Mothers Out Front, Gas Leaks Allies, and EnergizeAndover.
“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 use it and those who live in neighborhoods above gas pipes,” said Deirdre Cummings, Consumer Program Director MASSPIRG Education Fund. “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 transition off gas in this country and toward safer, cleaner electrification powered by networked geothermal or 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 property damage, emergency services, and released gas totaled nearly $4 billion. These incidents also resulted in leaking 26.6 billion cubic feet of gas, equivalent in its effects on global warming to emissions from over 2.4 million passenger vehicles driven for a year.
Included in those figures is the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions caused by Columbia Gas. The 2018 series of explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover resulted in the death of a young man, 22 hospitalizations, and the evacuation of 50,000 residents, and a state of emergency that lasted for two years. “It may not be obvious but in reality, recovery from the explosion that shocked Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts is still an ongoing process. The hasty remediation efforts to replace many appliances are now introducing new leaks, opening up the scabs. Unfortunately affected parties that are already fighting with systemic unemployment and Covid have run out of resources to handle defective appliance issues,” said Anil Navkal, Program lead, EnergizeAndover.
The serious pipeline incidents addressed in the report represent just a fraction of the leaks experienced in the production, transportation and burning of gas. 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.
“Despite investing tens of billions in the Massachusetts gas utility infrastructure, there has been no decline in gas leaks,” said Sarah Griffith, Gas Leaks Allies. “Unfortunately, the program prioritizes gas system replacement over focused repair of leak-prone pipe, with negligible public safety benefit.”
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 sources of energy, which are cleaner and safer for communities. During the transition, the report recommends that gas infrastructure investments focus on targeted repairs of leaks.
“In addition to causing explosions, gas leaks are associated with asthmaand can cause other problems for human health and well being by killing trees, resulting in hotter cities with worse air quality,” said Randi Soltysiak from Mothers Out Front. “In Somerville, we are thankful that Eversource has used robotics to fix a string of leaks instead of spending millions of ratepayer dollars on a new gas pipeline that we will not need in 20 years. This is an important step in the transition off gas that is necessary to meet our 2050 climate goals. Gas companies need to stop building new gas infrastructure, repair the leaks, and invest in heating alternatives that are safe, affordable, and non-emitting, such as electrification and networked geothermal.
Regulations need to be reformed to facilitate these smarter repairs instead of replacement, and transitioning off of gas altogether.”
“More and more, it’s unacceptable to saddle society with the risks associated with pumping methane into our homes and throughout our communities,” said Ben Hellerstein, Director, Environment Massachusetts. “Instead of gas, we can use electricity from 100% renewable sources to power technologies like induction cooktops and heat pumps. It’s time to leave explosive and polluting fossil fuels behind and embrace a future powered by clean energy.”
For more information on what to do if you suspect a gas leak, see our guide to preventing and reporting gas leaks here.