Last week, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) released a new map of leaks from natural gas pipelines in the Boston area. Working with researchers at Boston University, CLF calculated that leaking natural gas pipelines in Massachusetts release 8 to 12 billion cubic feet of methane every year. In terms of global warming pollution, that’s a huge problem: methane is a potent global warming pollutant, 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks account for as much as 4 percent of Massachusetts’ annual global warming pollution. In Massachusetts, the source of these leaks is old, failing infrastructure that too often isn’t adequately maintained.
Unfortunately, old pipes aren’t the only ones that fail. Experience across in the U.S. with pipelines carrying every kind of liquid shows that pipelines leak, and for that reason transporting volatile and dangerous products through pipelines will have negative consequences for the environment. For example, a 20-year-old pipeline leaked more than 20,000 barrels of oil into a North Dakota wheat field in September. Oil leaked from a pipeline in Ohio, contaminating a nature preserve. This was the 40th incident involving this pipeline in the past nine years. A pipeline in Arkansas leaked oil, forcing evacuations. A pipeline carrying ethanol and propane through Illinois leaked, causing an explosion in August. Even pipes carrying water have problems: in Texas, water mains lose as much as 16.7 percent of the water they carry through leaks.
This is not to say that other modes of transporting oil or natural gas, such as by rail or barge, are safer. Within the past two months, a barge spilled oil into the Houston Ship Channel, another barge spilled oil into the Mississippi, a train carrying liquefied petroleum gas derailed in Massachusetts, and a train derailed and spilled oil in Pennsylvania. Within the past year, other train derailments have occurred, spilling oil, causing fires, and killing people nearby.
In short, we lack methods for transporting oil and gas without damaging the environment. Pipelines fail, trains derail and barges leak. Utilities and pipeline operators have a poor track record of keeping up with maintenance needs of existing pipelines, and those upkeep demands are rising as infrastructure ages. We need greater investment in maintaining or replacing existing infrastructure, and in pursuing alternatives that reduce the need for new pipelines. Energy efficiency and distributed renewable energy can cut the need to transport oil and gas.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.