Methane gas leaks present environmental justice concerns

By Erin Murphy and Joe von Fischer

New peer-reviewed research reveals neighborhoods with more people of color and lower household income tended to have more gas leaks. Because natural gas is composed primarily of methane, leaks are a source of climate pollution as well as a health and safety hazard and nuisance to nearby communities. The findings demonstrate why regulators and gas utilities should be open with the public about gas leak information and ensure that leaks in disadvantaged communities are addressed equitably.

What the research tells us

Researchers analyzed gas leak location data in nine U.S. metro areas and found leak densities increased along with the percentage of people of color and with decreasing median household income. Thus, communities of color and low-income populations generally experienced more gas leaks. The study found that average leak density increases by 37% for these populations compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. Leak density — the number of leaks per mile of pipeline — also increased slightly in neighborhoods with older housing infrastructure.

Gas leaks pose multiple risks to communities. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes rapidly to climate change. Gas leaks can also result in explosions that are dangerous to people and property. Though such explosions are rare, they can be disastrous. Furthermore, the ongoing presence of leaked gas can create a nuisance odor, and can harm vegetation such as the urban tree canopy, which adversely affects neighborhood aesthetics, shade, cooling and property values. Now we learn that disadvantaged communities, which already face increased cumulative burdens, face additional risks due to the increased density of gas leaks.

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Solutions to address gas leak inequity

The new research demonstrates a trend that communities with more people of color and lower incomes were more likely to be exposed to greater densities of gas leaks. Every community is different and problems and solutions may vary. The good news is that there are readily available practices and technologies to address this problem.

1. Improve transparency

The first step in the right direction is to improve transparency around gas leaks so that the public is not left in the dark. Regulators can require gas utilities to publish leak information, and gas utilities can voluntarily release leak data — ideally in an easily accessible map form, as some utilities already do online. EDF has issued detailed recommendations to improve gas leak transparency in New York, that could be adopted anywhere.

2. Consider socioeconomic factors in leak repair

Utilities could incorporate demographic information into their own leak analyses, and act to prioritize leak mitigation in environmental justice communities as part of holistic gas system planning. Utilities are required to address hazardous leaks first to promote public safety, but when risks are equal, a utility could remediate inequities by prioritizing leaks in communities that have faced historic and ongoing discrimination — including by considering non-pipeline alternatives.

3. Use advanced leak detection technology

The gas leak data analyzed in this study was collected using advanced leak detection, or ALD. Peer-reviewed research has shown that ALD finds more leaks, with greater accuracy, than traditional methods used by most utilities. The federal government has recognized the importance of adopting this technology to improve safety and protect the environment. Utilities should incorporate ALD into their leak survey operations, and many leading companies around the U.S. are already doing so.

4. Reduce reliance on fossil gas

The best way to get rid of gas leaks is to get rid of gas pipelines. As we prepare for a decarbonized energy system and communities explore building electrification as an alternative to gas, utilities should plan for a managed contraction of the gas distribution system. This research shows the importance of prioritizing communities of color, which have historically borne the greatest burdens of energy systems, in the energy transition.

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