March 5, 2013

In Focus: Methane leaks could cloud future for natural gas

Experts strive to learn whether the benefits of gas for the climate outweigh its dangers.

By JULIET EILPERIN The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Bob Ackley, left, a gas leakage specialist, and Robert Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences at Duke University, prowl streets for gas leaks In Washington, D.C.

Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu

click image to enlarge

Bob Ackley, a gas leakage specialist, uses a combustible gas indicator to test the outpouring of methane gas from a manhole in the affluent Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu

Their findings have major safety and environmental implications. Gas leaks contribute to smog and can lead to explosions and fires, including the one that leveled a Kansas City, Mo., restaurant Feb. 19, or the 2010 San Bruno, Calif., pipeline explosion that killed more than half a dozen people.

And leaking gas can also weaken and kill trees in urban areas by replacing oxygen in their roots and drying them out; Ackley has helped organize a lawsuit by five communities surrounding Boston against the region's gas company, National Grid, and he is consulting with Montgomery County, Md., residents concerned about tree deaths there.

National Grid spokesman David Graves said that while his company has addressed individual tree deaths, "There is no evidence to support the claim that underground gas leaks cause widespread damage in vegetation."

While aging infrastructure contributes to leaks, so does the fact that utilities in Boston and the District can pass on the full cost of unaccounted losses -- whether through leaks or theft -- to customers. In the District, this charge makes up 3 percent of Washington Gas customers' monthly costs; in Boston it represents 1 percent of residents' monthly bill, the companies say.

Phillips said gas exploration wouldn't have to expand so rapidly if we didn't waste our current supply: "Our pipeline infrastructure is leaking out resources."


Company representatives in both cities said they respond immediately to any leak reported by the public. Companies include chemical additives to give the odorless gas a distinctive scent.

"We respond to and repair leaks 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Eric Grant, Washington Gas vice president for corporate relations, said in a statement. "With over 12,800 miles of distribution mains in our system it is not realistic to ever state that there are no leaks in our gas pipe system."

Betty Ann Kane, who chairs the D.C. Public Service Commission, said the commission is considering a rate increase that would include a major pipe replacement initiative. "We recognize it's an old system, and the replacement of old cast iron pipes is an issue in the rate case before us," she said.

States such as Massachusetts have a mix of cast iron, unprotected steel and plastic pipe: Graves said over the past two years his company has replaced 300 miles of leak-prone pipe throughout the state.

Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana Oil & Gas USA, said his company and others have made major strides in cutting leaks. In 2010, Encana put an inspection and maintenance program with infrared cameras in Wyoming's Jonah Field, Hock said, reducing methane emissions by more than 80 percent.


Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)