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Boston’s Street-Level Gas Leaks: 3,300-Plus

CAS prof and team spur repairs at potentially explosive sites

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow | Video by Nicolae Ciorogan

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In the video above, watch Nathan Phillips and his colleagues detecting natural gas leaks in Boston. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

That gas you smell is not your nasal imagination: Boston’s underground pipes are pimpled like pumice with more than 3,300 leaks spewing natural gas into the streets, according to the latest research from BU’s Nathan Phillips.

The work done by Phillips and his team has prompted repairs to six leaks with gas levels that could potentially have triggered an explosion, the Boston Globe reported recently. The vast majority of the leaks are small, but Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of earth and environment, noted in previous research that leaking gas is not just an explosion risk: it also contributes to global warming and wastes gas that utility customers are charged for. He believes the gas is responsible for killing millions of dollars’ worth of urban trees, a contention that utility companies dispute.

The Boston research, coauthored with colleague Lucy Hutyra, a CAS assistant professor of earth and environment, and her research assistant, Max Brondfield, among others, appeared last month in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Upper panel: Yellow light shafts showing 3,300-plus natural gas leaks with methane concentration (ppm) along Boston’s 785 miles of road, in red. Lower panel: Leaks around Beacon Hill and the Massachusetts statehouse with methane concentration (ppm). Images courtesy of Nathan Phillips

To catalog Beantown’s pipeline flatulence, the team drove all 785 miles of road in the city during six weeks last year. They measured gas levels with a machine attached to the outside of their car that vacuumed street-level molecules and fed them into an analyzer measuring the amounts of gas.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is described in the paper as “a greenhouse gas ore more potent molecule for molecule than carbon dioxide.” The 3,300-plus leaks found had methane levels up to 15 times higher than the ambient background level.

Almost two years ago, Phillips coauthored a paper for a federal conference that estimated the fallout from leaking gas in greater Boston, with consequences ranging from higher residential gas bills to damaged trees. What’s different about his most recent study is, first, that it documents the specific number of spouting spots within Boston’s city limits, and second, the paper made it into a peer-reviewed journal. “Knowing it passed peer review,” Phillips says, “means that agencies, utilities, municipalities, and policy makers have to consider this work seriously now.”

And they are, at least to the point of fixing the six big leaks. Otherwise, National Grid, which provides natural gas to Boston and half of Massachusetts, told the Globe that rather than repair small, nondangerous leaks, it replaces about 150 miles of old piping annually.

“It is easy to point fingers at one group—a utility or its stakeholders,” says Phillips. “The truth is, energy is cheap. All stakeholders—consumers and shareholders—should be taking advantage of gas’ historic low cost and pay a little bit more to bring our buried infrastructure up to an acceptable state of basic function. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that we have a functional pipeline system.”

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