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An Opportunity To Reduce Carbon: Plug Gas Leaks


Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas--many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It is also the main ingredient in the natural gas that we use for heating and cooking.

EPA officials have known for some time that leaks from natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure are a major source of methane emissions.

Now a new study of methane leaks in cities in the Northeast shows that these leaks put out twice the amount of gas than the EPA thought.

Some of these leaks can’t be helped, expert Eric Kort told Living Lab Radio. Kort is an associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences at the University of Michigan and the co-author of a recent survey of methane leaks.

“It's simply difficult to take such large volumes of gas, pull them out of the ground in one place, process them to make it more pure methane than what comes out of the ground, transport it along hundreds and thousands of miles of will inevitably lose some along such a system.”

But there are systemic problems that could be corrected, he said. 

“Some of it is likely related to just old infrastructure and some of it is related to not knowing where the emissions or losses are,” he said. “And some of it is the economic incentive doesn't line up.”

For example, in some places it could cost a company $100,000 to repair a leak. But the leak only loses $100 worth of gas each year, so it doesn’t make financial sense for the company to fix it, Kort said.

“And then there's another economic element, which is that often the people that are responsible for the loss of the gas often don't own that gas and maybe are not incentivized to not lose it.”

Kort studied the methane leaks by equipping an aircraft with instrumentation that could measure methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ethane. His team flew the plane over Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Providence, and Boston.

“We were able to look at multiple gases to identify that most of that methane that we saw indeed was coming from natural gas systems and not from systems like landfills,” Kort said.

The results could be seen as discouraging news, but Kort doesn’t see it that way. Rather, it’s the low-hanging fruit of carbon reduction.  

“I actually tend to think of this work and these findings as more providing really appealing mitigation opportunities,” he said.

“We could actually reduce emissions that have significant climate impact in a more efficient way that does not require large structural changes.”


Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.