The first thing you should know before learning about all of the natural gas in the air around here is that until 2014, utility companies like National Grid only had to report the most outrageous and severe leaks to the state. Anything that posed a smaller threat was left for energy behemoths to handle internally, municipal and public awareness be damned.
Another piece of critical background information is that since Commonwealth lawmakers passed legislation two years ago requiring utilities to also report moderate and mild leaks—plus repair data related to compromised lines—gas companies have pushed back hard against accountability measures. Blasting such maneuvering in a letter to the Department of Public Utilities, Attorney General Maura Healey wrote earlier this month:
[Gas] companies propose to … remove the minimum considerations when classifying natural gas leaks … [and] require only one year retention for documents … The AGO recommends that the Department [of Public Utilities] refrain from altering clear statutory definitions and processes in the 2014 legislation. Many comments suggest the broadening of definitions and procedures … with regards to topics such as leak grade qualifications and mandated time frames … However, a pattern of consistent annual classification of leaks is important to track a company’s accuracy and performance.
If you feel like energy conglomerates are playing with fire, you are not alone. Reporters across the state have covered the thousands of natural gas leaks—as well as the related potential dangers, like explosions—since said information was made publicly available. Meanwhile, unions that represent gas company workers are concerned about employee safety and are asking for additional precautions before digging and blasting. All while researchers investigate the breadth of the problem, giving people even more reason to fret.
Most recently, a study by a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Big Data Initiative presented area gas leaks in a new light. Titled “Lost Leaks,” the report (released online with data visualizations) identifies more than 4,000 “natural gas leaks that weren’t repaired,” but that “vanished from public utility company data between 2014 and 2015.” We contacted National Grid, to which the aforementioned researchers attribute nearly 3,000 of those so-called lost leaks, and a company spokesperson explained in an email: “The leaks that are not recorded in our books as repaired are due to one of two reasons: 1) The main where the leak is located is replaced. 2) There was a zero reading on a recheck of the leak due to a change in the migration pattern of gas.”
The utility’s assurance aside, we thought this situation begged a bit more inquiry, and so we reached out to “Lost Leaks” project manager and data analyst Al Carter:
DB: We recommend that readers check out your whole report, but how do you conversationally explain the things that you and the other researchers behind this project know about the air we breathe and the environment around us which most people walk through life without noticing?
AC: Utilities are poisoning the air. [Utility companies] appear to be lying about it and are definitely charging us for it. Methane is an asphyxiant. It can also cause headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination. Have you noticed how air sometimes feels better outside of the city? That’s not an illusion. Natural gas—methane, ethane, propane, butane—is likely one of those things making you feel bad.
How long has it taken for you to figure all of this out? Give us the short version of your digging methodology and data repository. Also, how are you going about sounding alarms about your discoveries?
We started working on this on July 19, and released [the report] on Aug 8. This is a side project of mine and only tangentially related to my research. Michael [Webber] and [Allie S.] are just volunteers. We don’t get paid for this stuff, so it does become awfully hard to commit time to it. And we’re burnt out. We’re hoping to regroup and start ringing some more bells after Labor Day.
Others have done similar research and reached comparable conclusions. Do your groups get together and commiserate about how little people seem to care that we are being poisoned out here?
Some activists held a birthday party for a 30-year-old leak recently. That’s right—the leak’s been documented for 30 years … and it’s still there. They didn’t light candles for obvious reasons …
In addition to being poisoned, my impression is that we’re being ripped off and lied to. We pay the cost of this lost gas through our utility bills, and the state government charges utilities for unrepaired leaks. If the leaks are being “lost,” ratepayers are footing more of the bill than we thought, and our government isn’t getting paid for it.
Thanks to you we learned that “utility companies in Massachusetts have had to report natural gas leaks and repairs since 2014.” WTF? How did they not have to that for so long?
Also, now that they’re doing it, why are they allowed to publish such shitty data? It takes effort to turn a frigging spreadsheet into a PDF and then mark it up so that it’s hard to parse. It would have been easier for them to give us structured data, so that this study would have taken one-quarter of the time. Why didn’t they? Public data means almost nothing if it takes 100 hours to process it.
What is the most frightening part of what you’ve found? What can be done about that specifically, and in the short run?
This data is shit. I don’t understand how citizens or the state are supposed to track leaks in Mass, when my impression is that utility companies either aren’t or can’t. I mean seriously—the stuff is explosive. Shouldn’t it at least be accessible to the fire department? The volume of gas lost from these basically has nothing to do with their “safety” rating.
How, if at all, does this apply to the ongoing debate over energy funding and policy in the Bay State? Especially as it shifts from day to day with legislation and confusing court decisions, what do consumers need to know?
We’re probably still underestimating the amount of gas our state loses. That means that we’re probably being charged for more lost gas than we realize; our government isn’t fining utilities as much as it should; and these new pipeline projects aren’t nearly as necessary as the utility companies claim they are …
Also, seriously—these are [some of the] people who decided that running a 750 PSI natural gas pipeline through a neighborhood [West Roxbury] and right next to Boston’s only active stone quarry and blast zone was a good idea … Do you trust these organizations to find and disclose information that it’s in their financial interest to conveniently lose? I don’t.