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Methane Gas Leaks

Frequent leaks are resulting in death, injury and other damage to our health and environment

Methane gas - often known as natural gas - has been heating American homes for more than a century, and for over a century it has been prone to leaks that put public health, safety and the environment at risk. Federal data shows that a serious gas pipeline incident occurs somewhere in the U.S. every 40 hours on average. With electric alternatives to gas heating and appliances now available, it's clear that gas has no place in a modern clean energy system.

Methane gas (often known as natural gas) has heated the homes of many Americans for over a century – and for over a century, it has been prone to leaks, putting communities and the environment in danger. With growing awareness of the impact of methane leaks on the climate, and with growing availability of safer alternatives, it is clear that gas has no place in a modern clean energy network.

Gas leaks and pipeline incidents are common and put public health and safety at risk.

  • In 2010, a gas terminal failure in San Bruno, California, caused an explosion on the scale of a magnitude 1.1 earthquake. Eight people were killed and 58 were injured.1 The event led to the creation of mandatory gas safety programs around the country.
  • In 2018, high-pressure gas was accidentally released into low-pressure gas distribution lines in Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, starting more than 80 fires in three towns.2 An 18-year-old was killed, and thousands of people went without gas for months.3
  • In March 2022, a four-story apartment building in Silver Spring, Maryland, was destroyed in an explosion caused by a leak coming from a cut gas line.4 In total, 14 people were hospitalized and over 200 were displaced.5

A gas pipeline incident occurs somewhere in the U.S. approximately every 40 hours. From 2010 through nearly the end of 2021, almost 2,600 pipeline incidents related to the release of gas occurred in the United States that were serious enough to be reported to the federal government, 328 of which resulted in explosions. Those explosions and fires killed 122 people and injured 603.6

The amount of gas leaking to the environment is far greater than captured in federal leak reporting or emissions estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).7 A 2020 study, for example, estimated that there are more than a half million leaks in local gas distribution systems in the U.S., and that leakage from these systems was five times greater than the amount estimated by the EPA.8

Table ES-1 Number of reported gas pipeline leaks by year

Gas can be released intentionally by a utility to lower pressure or empty pipelines for maintenance, or can be released unintentionally due to wear, equipment failure, natural causes, or accidental force or puncture. 9

Gas leaks contribute to global warming. Gas leaks reported to the federal government resulted in the release of 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane gas from 2010 through October 2021, equivalent in its effects on global warming to emissions from over 2.4 million passenger vehicles driven for a year. 10

The EPA estimates that emissions from natural gas transmission and distribution systems and storage fell significantly between 1990 and 2016, but progress has slowed since.11 However, EPA reporting of greenhouse gas emissions from gas systems is likely incomplete. While EPA estimates that the rate of leaks throughout the gas supply chain is 2-3%, studies suggest leak rates throughout the supply chain are significantly higher – high enough that they offset any greenhouse gas benefit of gas over coal.12

The frequency of major gas leak incidents has not declined significantly since 2010, despite the time and money that gas utilities have spent to address leaks in the wake of several deadly explosions. (See figure below.)

Figure ES-2: Reported gas pipeline leak incidents, 2010 to 202013

  • In states such as Illinois and Maryland, utility programs have prioritized complete system replacements over focused replacement of leak-prone infrastructure, resulting in the expenditure of billions of dollars for limited public safety benefit.14
  • While efforts to reduce leaks from gas distribution systems have made some progress, reliance on methane gas is inconsistent with the need to decarbonize the nation’s energy system by mid-century. As a result, investments in gas systems beyond those needed to protect public health and safety could become “stranded,” diverting attention and resources that should be used to transition the nation’s energy system to truly clean forms of energy.

The consistent risks posed by gas leaks – coupled with the urgent need to address climate change – mean that the nation should prioritize electrifying buildings while taking immediate, focused actions to address the biggest safety risks.

Photo: Jason Finn via Shutterstock.com 

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Authors

Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.

Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Abe Scarr is the director of Illinois PIRG. He is a lead advocate in the Capitol and in the media for stronger consumer protections, utility accountability, and good government. In 2017, Abe led a coalition to pass legislation to implement automatic voter registration in Illinois, winning unanimous support in the Illinois General Assembly for the bill. In 2019, he co-authored "Tragedy of Errors," a report documenting decades of mismanagement in the Peoples Gas pipe replacement program, and has built a large coalition to end wasteful gas utility spending. Before moving to Illinois in 2014, Abe worked as the state director for ConnPIRG, where he helped pass a landmark solid waste and recycling law. He also serves as a board member for the Consumer Federation of America. Abe lives in Chicago, where he enjoys biking, cooking and tending his garden.

Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.

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