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Leak-free natural gas may just be a pipe dream

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Is safe, environmentally sustainable natural gas possible in San Francisco? (Courtesy photo)

On Oct. 23, 2015, Southern California Gas Company found a massive leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility. Schools closed and thousands left their homes, many complaining of headaches, nosebleeds and nausea. By the time they repaired the leak, it had released about 109,000 tons of methane — a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 84 times of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Its impact was the same as burning more than 1 billion gallons of gasoline.

The same day the Aliso leak was discovered, PG&E repaired three smaller leaks on San Francisco’s vast distribution network. According to the latest state reports, these were only a few of the roughly 1,000 potentially hazardous leaks PG&E repaired in The City in 2015. Many more nonhazardous leaks have gone unrepaired for years, and still more may go undetected.

While catastrophic events like Aliso Canyon and the fatal San Bruno explosion have garnered international attention, natural gas leaks are widespread, everyday occurrences. They continuously warm our planet, pollute our air and deprive plants and trees of oxygen. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Lab recently found that methane emissions in the San Francisco Bay Area may be roughly twice as high as estimated, and gas leaks are an “important source.”

So what is a climate-conscious city supposed to do? Is safe, environmentally sustainable natural gas possible in San Francisco?

It’s a hard question to answer with such little information. The state only began collecting data from gas companies in 2015. While PG&E complies with reporting requirements, it’s difficult to compile a complete picture of San Francisco without the precise location of leaks.

Other cities have this information and are doing more to protect the safety, health and wallets of residents. Last December, Boston passed an ordinance to improve coordination between city departments and gas companies. The new law keeps costs and traffic disruption down while companies maintain aging pipes, and it permits compensation for trees injured or killed by leaks.

“If our cities are supposed to be smart cities, we must go beyond silo infrastructure,” Dr. Nathan Phillips of Boston University, one of the members of The City’s working group and an early researcher of natural gas leaks, told me.

I contacted PG&E to find out if they would be open to an increased partnership with San Francisco. Spokesperson Gregory Snapper told me they already work closely with The City on gas infrastructure upgrades every day. He pointed me to the $1.2 billion investment the utility dedicated to San Francisco’s infrastructure and PG&E’s replacement of cast iron pipeline.

“We are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to reduce gas emissions, such as our early adoption of highly sensitive mobile methane detection technology, and have already seen significant reductions through our safety and reliability work,” Snapper told me.

Indeed, this work to curb methane emissions is commendable. But PG&E’s pipes are still leaking. If no greater partnership between The City and the gas company is possible, perhaps leak-free natural gas is just a pipe dream.

Of course, San Francisco could collect its own data. Using new technology, Indianapolis, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Dallas, Mesa and parts of Los Angeles have conducted methane surveys. If San Francisco follows their lead, The City could verify PG&E’s data and develop its own strategy for addressing this potent greenhouse gas.

But maybe following these cities’ lead isn’t San Francisco’s style. CityLab recently reported that Amsterdam plans to give up natural gas by 2050. San Francisco could be the first municipality in the United States to make that pledge and increase renewable energy use to get us there.

“This problem makes it much more important to remain committed to our sustainability goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030,” Guillermo Rodriguez at the Department of Environment told me. “San Franciscans can help by subscribing to CleanPowerSF as a Super Green customer to help build out more renewable sources of energy.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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