I’m beginning to gain a reputation, even outside of this newsletter, for noticing gas infrastructure.
During our home search in DC, I identified by smell, an extensive gas leak in a house that had been empty for a while, something our agent said had never happened to him before. Now, in the house we actually decided on, I often walk the same circuit out in the neighborhood to break up my day. On the walks, I kept noticing that a gas smell was wafting somewhere in front of a set of houses on our street. Intermittent, but definitely there. After about the fourth time, I called DC’s gas utility, Washington Gas, to report it.
It was a confusing call, where I had to clarify several times that I was not the homeowner where the leak was happening, and no, I didn’t have an exact address. If anything, the smell seemed to be stronger on the sidewalk, like it was coming from the street.
I immediately thought of HEET.
HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) originally started as a home efficiency nonprofit, but now tracks gas leaks across local infrastructure in Massachusetts and is pushing the state towards using geothermal energy as an alternative.
A 2021 Washington Post story tells the origin story of how a novelist and group of volunteers created an extensive public map of active and repaired methane leaks from local pipes in Massachusetts. It started with her traveling around her neighborhood:
In late 2012, Schulman heard about researchers who had found more than 3,000 natural gas leaks in the Boston area. The report shocked Schulman, who would bike past a “really bad smell of gas” on one of her routes. But until the study, she said, “I didn’t know it was methane. I didn’t know it was a greenhouse gas. I didn’t know anything.”
Schulman reached out to the researchers to help map the many methane leaks in her neighborhood. And in early 2015, after Massachusetts passed a law the previous year requiring that gas companies disclose leaks, she quickly tracked down lists for the entire state.
The data, however, was virtually unusable…. It took her and her recruited volunteers an entire summer to figure out how to turn the messy PDFs into a spreadsheet and ultimately the first statewide map of natural gas leaks.
Because I wasn’t the homeowner of an amorphous set of houses, Washington Gas wouldn’t follow up with me on a resolution of my call. I vaguely wondered if I could report my way into it, especially if the utility was supposed to report the location and resolution of gas leak complaints to the District’s Public Service Commission.
But mostly it slipped my mind: it got colder so I took shorter walks, we spent the holidays at family, etc.
Until this past week, when mid-evening, I heard a very loud drill, several houses down. I peered out and saw several Washington Gas trucks and a few floodlights.
The next morning on my walk I noticed a lot more utility marking lines on the street, in part because there were absolutely no cars parked on one side for about a hundred feet. There were small but deep and perfectly round holes in the pavement, right where the yellow lines marked gas. A parking permit sign read “gas line repair”.
I have no idea if my complaint lead Washington Gas to come fix a gas line on my street, especially since the holes weren’t in the same spot I had reported. I have no idea what “gas line repair” means in this context. They haven’t been back, there hasn’t been any notice to residents about what they actually did. But it reminded me of something an interviewee said several months ago in passing: A study on DC’s gas lines had recorded more than 3,000 methane leaks across the city.
I finally looked up that study, which surveyed DC residential streets between April and June 2021. I was surprised and not surprised to find one of the authors was the original researcher on the Boston study. While the summary cautions that concentrations of air methane alone “are not a reliable indicator of the overall volume of fugitive emissions” - the survey was done in part to identify places where leaks were the most severe. The thinking is, if DC focuses on the worst cases, it can cut down on its methane emissions from leaks faster.
The document is not actually very long, and relatively readable. But the maps tell the results pretty well here: First a “heat map” of methane emission points found by the survey..
Secondly, a pinpoint of verified leak locations:
Schulman sent the findings to the Boston Globe, unsure if she would even get a response. On August 20, 2015, the story ran on the front page….
The public attention helped spur the state to pass a 2016 law requiring gas companies to fix leaks of “significant environmental impact,” even if safety wasn’t a concern. Since then, HEET has continued to map leaks and verify repair compliance. It estimates that gas companies have now fixed hundreds of these super-emitting leaks, along with thousands of smaller seepages.
But many more remain, and Schulman knows that chasing them is both an incomplete fix and no doubt futile. The job will only become more difficult as gas pipes — some of which date back to the 1800s — continue to age. That’s why she’s also been at the forefront of finding a way to transition off natural gas entirely.
Early last year, environmental and religious groups in DC did a follow up survey of gas well caps in the city. Their target area was smaller, but they still found hundreds of likely leaks.
Washington Gas itself is in the middle of an extensive project known as PROJECTPipes, approved by DC’s utility regulator, to modernize main gas lines in their service area to the tune of almost $300 million. A third phase of PROJECTPipes is likely to be submitted to the PSC for approval early this year. In theory this work is about preventing future leaks, but advocates have argued it only further entrenches gas infrastructure in the District. It’s arguably at odds with DC’s moves to promote electrification in new construction, and the city’s overall emissions goals. And the 2021 survey notes, PROJECTPipes does not cover reactive gas leak fixes or prioritize the largest leaks, instead, it prioritizes pipes for replacement “based on an algorithmic forecast of potential future leaks”.
Some of the PROJECTPipes locations do match up with some of the worst air methane concentrations in the 2021 survey, but not all. And, as I looked closer, I realized, there were no active projects in my neighborhood.