The recent fatal New York City apartment explosion has increased the focus on methane and climate change. Investigators say that it is more likely that gas was the cause of the explosion, although it is still being investigated. Witnesses smelled gas and called Con Edison 15 minutes before the blast, but it was too late. The explosion also increases the focus on aging infrastructure that is used to deliver the gas, some of which was put in back in the 1800's.
Investigators were trying to determine whether the explosion had anything to do with the city's aging gas and water mains, some of which were installed in the 1800s. More than 30,000 miles of decades-old, decaying cast-iron pipe are still being used to deliver gas nationwide, according to U.S. Transportation Department estimates.
The blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. Con Edison said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they got there too late.
The focus is also on New York City's system. A study that was released the same time as the explosion found that two thirds of its system was built of materials that were vulnerable to leaks. The city is in a dilemma; the cost will be prohibitive to replace two thirds of its system. However, the risk of doing nothing is that there will be more explosions like this.
The report, commissioned by the nonprofit Center for an Urban Future, looked at New York City's aging infrastructure including its gas pipelines. It found that 58 percent of ConEd's 2,234 miles of gas mains pre-date 1960. Sixty percent are composed of unprotected steel or cast iron, the most leak-prone material.
Another report, done last year, shows that there are few places in New York City where methane gas levels are normal.
A separate report from 2013 concluded that Manhattan sits in a cloud of elevated levels of methane. The survey, commissioned by environmental group Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, highlighted the lurking danger posed by leaks of natural gas, a mixture that is mostly methane.
Since methane is nearly as responsible for global warming as all of the other CO2 gases put together, this makes New York City's gas issues an issue of global importance as well as national importance.
The Center for an Urban Future study looked at all of New York's infrastructure, not just their gasworks. They said that while it was better than it was in the 1980's, policymakers had let stuff go for too long. They said that it would cost $47 billion just to maintain infrastructure at present levels.
Over 1,000 miles of New York City water mains are more than 100 years old, leading to frequent and disruptive breaks. More than 160 bridges across the five boroughs were built over a century ago, and in 2012 47 bridges were deemed both structurally deficient and fracture critical, a designation engineers use for bridges that have little structural redundancy, making them prone to failure and collapse. The subway’s aging signaling system—with 269 miles of mainline signals exceeding their 50-year useful life—slows the movement of trains and forces maintenance workers to build their own replacement parts because manufacturers no longer make them. Additionally, more than 200 of the city’s public school buildings were built before 1920.
And the demand for natural gas will only grow bigger.
Demand is set to grow significantly in the coming decades, in large part due to significantly cheaper prices for natural gas and the recent citywide ban #4 and #6 home heating oil. To accommodate the growing demand across the five boroughs, New York’s aging gas distribution system will need to be upgraded and expanded.
Con Edison and National Grid each manage one of the oldest gas distribution networks in the country. Con Edison’s 2,234 miles of gas mains serve 833,000 customers in the Bronx, Manhattan and northern Queens. Their mains are 53 years old on average and 60 percent are composed of unprotected steel or cast iron, the most leak-prone material. According to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Con Edison experienced 83 leaks for every 100 miles of main in 2012. Corrosion was responsible for a total of 427 of these leaks.
And the natural gas that is escaping is already doing significant damage to the climate.
Failure to address leak-prone pipes could have environmental consequences. According to Bill McKibben, a prominent environmentalist, methane released from unburned natural gas is 20 to 100 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. If more than 2 to 3 percent of gas escapes into the atmosphere from the point of extraction to its final destination, natural gas can do significant damage to the climate. In New York City, 1.5 percent of National Grid’s gas is unaccounted for and 2.2 percent of gas entering Con Edison’s mains and service pipes—only the final stage in the extraction-transmission-distribution process—did not reach a final customer in 2012.
Recently, the Bloomberg Administration phased out home heating oil #4 and #6. Despite this, the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability
study found that natural gas offered no advantages pollution-wise over home heating oil or even coal.
This report takes an innovative approach using actual measurements and an elegantly simple method that arrives at the conclusion that there is no advantage to natural gas over coal or oil. The authors developed a rapid assessment method based on actual methane measurements and meteorological data that was used to generate an estimate of total methane emissions in Manhattan. This emissions estimate made it possible to assess the relative impact of gas service in Manhattan, most importantly in the broader context of GHG and climate change. In addition, there are other issues: the extra cost to consumers of loss of product; the damage to trees and other organisms; the danger of explosion and toxicity to underground workers; and the public health threat of constantly escaping natural gas evidenced by elevated methane levels.
Since Natural Gas offers no environmental advantages over home heating oil or coal, Bloomberg's ban simply damages the economy by hurting businesses that sell it. And it creates a disincentive for Natural Gas companies to improve since there is less competition for their services.
This is all in addition to the news that Arctic sea ice levels are at a record low at a time when it is normally at its peak.
For one, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG), who answers their own query: “Why is Arctic Methane An Emergency?” by saying, “The reason, in one word, is: “Runaway.”
According to AMEG: “Arctic methane emissions are increasing as the Arctic warms several times faster than the rest of our planet. There are three huge reservoirs of Arctic methane till recently safely controlled by the Arctic freezing cold environment. They are now all releasing additional methane to the atmosphere as the Arctic rapidly warms (carbon feedback). The more the temperature increases and the longer the Arctic warms the more methane these sources will emit. That much is certain.”
Furthermore, AMEG claims: “If methane release from Arctic sea floor hydrates happens on a large scale… then this situation can start an uncontrollable sequence of events that would make world agriculture and civilization unsustainable. It is a responsible alarm, not alarmist, to say that it is a real threat to the survival of humanity and most life on Earth.”
Down Under, Carlos Duarte, PhD, Director, Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, who was awarded the Prix d’Excellence by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, claims that the “future of human kind face dire consequences due to arguably the first signs of dangerous climate change in the Arctic…” Arctic Scientist Warns of Dangerous Climate Change, University News, The University of Western Australia, Jan. 30, 2012.
And landfills are another source of methane emissions, like this leaking landfill
in Spartanburg, SC.
According to popular belief, including this Washington Post editorial from last month, these leakage problems are not representative of the whole system. However, this was written before the NYC explosion, which suggests that in fact there is a problem at the national level. However, it notes that curbing methane emissions is something that can be done. Discussing a Science Magazine study, it states:
Reasonable new regulation wouldn’t be very expensive, in part because it would reduce the amount of product that goes to waste. The Science analysis, meanwhile, indicates that a huge chunk of the country’s methane pollution comes from a small group of “super-emitters,” which the EPA could aim to fix first.
Some states already have imposed more comprehensive rules on the oil and gas industry. John Hickenlooper (D), Colorado’s governor, is pushing through regulations that would apply to old and new facilities for both oil and gas, which would require various anti-leak technologies and regular leak inspection on tanks, pipelines and other equipment. Mr. Hickenlooper hashed out the requirements with drillers and the Environmental Defense Fund, an activist group whose practical approach has done much more to clean up fracking than the unsparing opposition of its more radical cousins.
The problem is that if the Keystone Pipeline is approved, it will only make this problem worse. Since Natural Gas is not necessarily an improvement over coal or oil in heating and since methane emissions are accelerating due to the melting of the Arctic ice, the argument that it can be used as a transitional fuel is undermined. That means that the need for solar and wind electricity and solar heating is getting much greater.