Methane leak points to aging gas infrastructure
Methane is spewing from an underground natural gas storage field in Southern California called Aliso Canyon at a rate of 50,000 kilograms per hour. The leak is causing health problems, air traffic detours and mass evacuations. And because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, its contribution to global warming is like having three extra coal-fired power plants.
This isn’t just California’s problem: In addition to those direct consequences, Aliso Canyon is a wake-up call about the challenges facing our natural gas infrastructure. U.S. energy strategy, as outlined by the new Clean Power Plan, hinges on the idea that burning natural gas has a smaller carbon footprint than burning coal.
But that’s only true if, as natural gas travels from wells in a gasfields to the homes, businesses and power plants that ultimately use it, only trace amounts leak into the air. From the massive Aliso Canyon leak to micro-leaks spread across the vast pipeline network, if more than 2 to 4 percent of natural gas escapes, natural gas is no longer cleaner than coal.
The leak focuses attention on the integrity, regulation and monitoring of Colorado’s own natural gas infrastructure. For many of us, that infrastructure – a truly vast system of pipes, tanks, valves, compressors, pumps, stations and plants that brings gas from fields across the country to the majority of American homes – is invisible, even if it’s right in our backyards.
Data from the Energy Information Administration and the state oil and gas commission show that Colorado has:
• 49,299 producing oil and gas wells.
• 43 natural gas processing plants, which purify natural gas so that it’s ready for consumption.
• 10 underground natural gas storage facilities, which hold processed gas.
• 27 natural gas-fired power plants.
Every piece of that infrastructure has the potential to be leaky. Before gas has been processed at a plant, leaks are problematic because they release volatile organic compounds, which contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and reduced air quality; and methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
After processing, methane is the major concern, and in cases like Aliso Canyon, the chemical added to the gas so that people can smell it in event of a leak can also cause health problems.
In 2014, Colorado introduced rules requiring the regular monitoring for leaks with sight, smell and hearing tests and with infrared cameras. The rules also included mandatory upgrades to equipment that reduce leaks. However, Colorado’s regulations only apply to natural gas infrastructure that is upstream of processing plants – thus they don’t cover underground storage facilities.
Aliso Canyon raises questions that, just like the leak itself, won’t be resolved for months or years. In the meantime, here are some important things to know about about our natural gas megasystem.
Aliso Canyon is part of a vast natural gas infrastructure that stretches to every state.
The Aliso Canyon facility is large, but it isn’t unique — hundreds of natural gas storage facilities like it are spread across the country. In addition to storage, natural gas infrastructure includes wells, pipelines, processing plants, compressor stations, and power-plants. And for half of all Americans, this system connects right into their homes to provide fuel for heating and cooking.
Much of the nearly 1.6 million miles of natural gas pipeline that connects wells to homes is decades old – a third was built before 1970. If we break it down even further, more transmission pipeline – the kind that carries high-pressure gas long distances, often across state lines – was built in the 1960s than any other decade, and nearly half (46 percent) was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Looking at distribution pipeline – the kind that carries gas into homes and businesses – more was built in the 1990s than any other decade.
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