About two hours into a drive around Utrecht, a city of 358,000 near the center of the Netherlands, the display providing a real-time readout of ambient methane levels begins to freak out.
The Samsung tablet is consistently showing concentrations close to the atmosphere’s background level of about two parts per million (ppm).
Yet suddenly, the chart’s scale expands to follow a sudden spike to 300ppm.
Behind the wheel, Hossein Maazallahi, a doctoral candidate at Utrecht University, said that the reason is clear: A natural gas pipeline has sprung a leak.
Maazallahi, 30, is part of Methane goes Mobile - Measurements and Modeling (MeMo2), a seven-country, public-private research project that is training scientists to find methane leaks in fossil fuel production and municipal infrastructure across Europe.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas, which is supplanting its dirtier cousins as a source of electricity.
However, researchers are finding that the pipes delivering all that gas are a lot leakier than utility companies understand.
Maazallahi’s study of methane levels in Utrecht and Hamburg, Germany, recently published in the scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, found 81 apparent leaks in Utrecht’s network and 145 in Hamburg.
Natural gas also contributes to ground-level ozone, which exacerbates asthma — a pressing health concern in communities of color, where the condition is more prevalent. It can also explode, if allowed to build up in a closed space.
However, beyond more localized safety issues, the problem has a planetary component: It is playing a significant role in global warming. Now, as the US rejoins the climate fight being waged in Europe and elsewhere with US President Joe Biden’s plan to “supercharge” his nation’s efforts, finding new ways to rein in greenhouse gases should become even more of a priority. Tackling decrepit natural gas networks is likely to be high on the list.
Methane is the second-most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but it is 25 times more effective at trapping heat. The higher potency combined with a shorter lifespan — maybe a dozen years rather than a century or more for carbon dioxide — has brought it to the forefront of climate mitigation strategies.
In the long run, say by 2100, countries would need to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions if they want to avoid agricultural catastrophe.
However, to hit goals set for 2030 by the Paris Agreement — namely emissions levels that keep warming below 2°C — focusing on methane reduction makes more sense.
“Anything we can do to reduce methane emissions now helps buy us more time to address carbon dioxide emissions in the future,” said Robert Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University and director of the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of hundreds of scientists worldwide seeking to make greenhouse gas data available to the public.
However, the big obstacle to tackling methane emissions is that, while it is known that the amount of methane in the atmosphere has more than doubled since about 1750, all of its sources are not known. Besides production of fossil fuels, methane also comes from landfills, livestock, agriculture and wetlands.
Conveniently for researchers, methane derived from fossil fuels has a chemical signature that differs from other sources.
That distinction helped Benjamin Hmiel, then a postdoctoral associate at the University of Rochester, figure out how much of it has been pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.
For his doctoral dissertation, published in the journal Nature, Hmiel tapped pockets of air in ancient ice in Greenland to measure the proportion of fossil methane. Then he subtracted it from what is in the air today, and determined the fossil methane humans are responsible for.
“We didn’t realize how clear of a picture we had until after the measurements,” said Hmiel, who is now an Environmental Defense Fund researcher.
It turns out that fossil fuel-based methane emissions are 25 to 40 percent higher than previously thought, although the scientific community continues to debate the findings.
So where is all this extra methane coming from? Some of it from leaks, apparently.
The oil and gas industry, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have previously estimated methane emissions from drilling operations by taking measurements in a few locations and then extrapolating.
Yet recently, scientists have rigged satellites with instruments to provide a more accurate picture. The more they looked, the more they found how far off-base those estimates were.
Last year, researchers from the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research figured out that methane from the Permian Basin, a hub of drilling activity in Texas and New Mexico, was double earlier estimates.
“The largest area of production of oil in the US is emitting a lot more methane than the industry says,” said Sudhanshu Pandey, the study’s lead author.
The contribution to global warming of methane leaked and vented from the Permian is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of all US households over a 20 year-period, his study found.
Some of the emissions from fossil-fuel extraction are unavoidable, such as when methane trapped in coal mines must be vented to avoid hazardous conditions, but some are avoidable, and operators are unlikely to pay fines for accidental release, according to research by the Niskanen Center of Washington.
Norway is a leader in taxing these emissions, and thus incentivizing leak reduction.
However, fossil fuel industry lobbyists in North Dakota and Wyoming — two of the largest petroleum-producing US states — have shot down efforts in the US to emulate the Scandinavians.
While fossil fuel production facilities are by far the biggest source of leaks, the pipelines that extend from those installations to consumers are vast, able to circle the Earth 120 times if laid end-to-end.
EPA estimates are that fossil fuel distribution accounts for only 7 percent of methane emissions in the natural gas system, but recent studies show that number might be low.
A 2015 study of Indianapolis, Indiana, found that leaks there were producing the global warming equivalent of the electricity consumption of up to 42,000 households.
In Boston, Massachusetts, a 2.7 percent leak rate was discovered in that city’s distribution network.
Washington “is very leaky, Baltimore is very leaky, [as is] Providence, Rhode Island,” said Nathan Phillips, acting director of the Sustainable Neighborhood Lab at Boston University, who has published research on leakage from natural gas distribution systems.
With the US’ disintegrating infrastructure, the problem is only getting worse. By comparison, areas where pipelines were recently replaced have up to 95 percent fewer leaks, Jackson said.
Margaret Hendrick, one of Phillips’ students, found in a 2016 study published in Environmental Pollution that just 7 percent of leaks are responsible for 50 percent of the gas escaping from utilities’ pipes.
Capping even a small portion of them could go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite generally having better-maintained infrastructure than the US, Europe is not immune to old pipes, either.
Back in Utrecht, Maazallahi circles the block and returns to the street corner where his electronic display first spiked.
He pulls into a parking spot across from a Domino’s Pizza.
Jutting out of his Volkswagen’s front grill is a 6mm-wide plastic tube no different from one you might find bubbling in a home aquarium. It winds along the fender, through a crack in the passenger door and under a floor mat to the backseat, where it is attached to a device that can cost as much as US$90,000.
The device is called a cavity ring-down spectrometer, and it could be a critical tool in the fight to slow global warming. The gadget, made by Silicon Valley’s Picarro Inc, contains three highly polished triangular mirrors.
Inside a one liter container kept at 80 percent vacuum, a laser pulse tuned to the wavelength at which methane absorbs light bounces between the mirrors. The faster the light decays, the more methane in the cavity.
Simultaneous measurement of carbon dioxide levels reveals whether a high methane reading is just from a passing vehicle whose catalytic converter needs adjustment, or something more insidious.
Maazallahi exits the vehicle in search of the exact location of the leak. Wearing jeans, a blue bomber jacket and Elvis Costello glasses, he starts walking along the street with a portable version of the larger spectrometer in the van’s backseat.
After holding a tube over cracks beside a few metal sidewalk plates, Maazallahi investigates a drain by a curb. Bingo.
The reading is similar to the one he first measured.
“A pipeline leak could easily find its way through this outlet,” he said.
Maazallahi planned to notify the utility company, which has previously fixed leaks found by MeMo2.
Maazallahi said that utilities use decades-old technology to discover leaks, but often cannot quantify how big a leak is.
Else de Kwaasteniet, a spokesperson for Utrecht utility Stedin, said that the leaks detected by Maazallahi are mostly below its threshold for alarm.
Stedin checks its entire network at least every five years, she said.
Bernd Eilitz, a spokesperson for Hamburg’s utility, city-owned Gasnetz, said that it checks lines every four years, with high-pressure pipes getting more frequent scrutiny.
Gasnetz had fixed the leaks Maazallahi found there, he said.
Phillips said his project has made inroads in the US, having mapped the natural gas infrastructure of a Boston suburb, and that he is in negotiations with a major US east coast city about capturing methane samples on bicycles and scooters, which can get into alleys and other places that vehicles cannot.
The cavity raindown spectrometer, which is also made by Los Gatos Inc and others, is “a very stable, very elegant, very precise way of measuring methane,” Phillips said.
Eilitz seemed to agree, saying that Gasnetz sees “vehicle-based sensors as an interesting addition” to their current routine checks.
Bridger Photonics Inc, a Bozeman, Montana-based company that provides methane emissions data to the oil and gas industries using airborne lidar, found approximately four significant leaks per 1.6km2 in preliminary scans of metropolitan area gas distribution networks.
Bridger chief executive officer Pete Roos said that his company can find big leaks from the air even faster than Maazallahi’s method — and that demand for such services is growing.
“Natural gas is getting pushed from all sides,” Roos said. “There’s been an evolution of understanding that for this industry to survive, they’ve got to have responsible operations and keep that gas in the pipe.”
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