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Monday, March 4, 2013

Aging infrastructure is an existential threat to shale gas

The Environmental Defense Fund is doing critically important work to understand the complex issue of methane leakage – not only from the production of natural gas, but along the entire supply chain, to end-use in natural gas vehicles. EDF will also focus on the gathering and processing, long distance transmission and storage, and local distribution of natural gas.   EDF aims to complete the entire two-year, $10 million effort by December 2013.

EDF is likely to find some troubling data on many fronts. Perhaps the most troubling will have to do with our nation’s aging infrastructure. It’s not just roads, bridges, water and sewer systems (to name a few) that are failing across the country.

According to The Washington Post, Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment has found that Boston’s aging gas transmission infrastructure had 3,356 leaks.  Duke has collected data on methane leaks under Washington D.C.’s roads as well and found, in the words of Professor Rob Jackson, that “Washington is at least as leaky as Boston, if not more,” Jackson said. “It looks like it has both more leaks and bigger leaks than Boston.”

Leaked methane is lost product – and lost profits – for production companies and utilities.  Worse, it’s tremendously damaging to global climate that has already past several tipping points and is headed for catastrophe. So, it may not be a stretch to conclude that the nation's aging gas distribution infrastructure is an existential threat to the shale gas era.

EDF’s findings, and the great work of universities like Duke, must be used to help guide how companies, states and the federal government measure, monitor and manage methane emissions.

But if we are to achieve the climate benefits of the shale gas era, we must not only get the rules right.  We must as a nation face up to a task we have so far utterly failed (despite huge economic benefits) to shoulder – the rehabilitation and modernization our deteriorated national infrastructure.

April 4, 2013 Update: High leakage rates in Manhattan's natgas infrastructure identified

April10, 2013 Update: As part of the EDF study mentioned above, a Washington State University research team will begin this month to quantify methane leaks on natural gas lines and use the information to estimate a national methane emissions rate for US gas-distribution systems.

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