By Erin Murphy and Joe von Fischer
New peer-reviewed research shows that neighborhoods with more people of color and lower household incomes tend to have more gas leaks. Because natural gas consists primarily of methane, leaks are a source of climate pollution as well as a health and safety hazard and nuisance to surrounding communities. The findings show why regulators and gas utilities should be open with the public about gas leak information and ensure leaks in disadvantaged communities are treated fairly.
What the research tells us
The researchers analyzed data on gas leaks in nine US metropolitan areas and found that leak densities increased with the percentage of black people and with decreasing median household income. As a result, black and low-income populations generally experienced more gas leaks. The study found that average leak density increases by 37% for these populations compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. Leak density — the number of leaks per mile of pipeline — also increased slightly in neighborhoods with older residential infrastructure.
Gas leaks pose multiple risks to communities. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is rapidly contributing to climate change. Gas leaks can also cause explosions that endanger people and property. Although such explosions are rare, they can be devastating. In addition, the continued presence of leaked gas can generate an unpleasant odor and damage vegetation such as the urban canopy, adversely affecting the neighborhood’s aesthetics, shade, cooling, and real estate values. We are now learning that disadvantaged communities, already facing increased cumulative stresses, face additional risks due to the increased density of gas leaks.
Solutions to fight injustices in gas leaks
The new research shows a trend that communities with more black people and lower incomes were more likely to experience higher densities of gas leaks. Every community is different and problems and solutions may vary. The good news is that there are methods and technologies already available to address this problem.
1. Improve transparency
The first step in the right direction is to increase transparency around gas leaks so the public isn’t left in the dark. Regulators can require gas utilities to publish information about leaks, and gas utilities can voluntarily publish leak data – ideally in the form of an easily accessible map, as some utilities are already doing online. EDF has issued detailed recommendations for improving transparency on gas leaks in New York that could be adopted anywhere.
2. Consider socio-economic factors in leak repair
Utilities could incorporate demographic information into their own leak analysis and take steps to prioritize leak mitigation in green communities as part of a holistic gas system design. Utilities must first fix dangerous leaks to promote public safety, but when the risks are equal, a utility could right injustices by prioritizing leaks in communities that have faced historical and ongoing discrimination — including considering alternatives outside the pipeline .
3. Use advanced leak detection technology
The gas leak data analyzed in this study was collected using Advanced Leak Detection (ALD). Peer-reviewed research has shown that ALD finds more leaks with greater accuracy than traditional methods used by most utilities. The federal government has recognized the importance of adopting this technology to improve safety and protect the environment. Utility companies should integrate ALD into their leak detection operations, and many leading companies in the US are already doing so.
4. Reduce dependence on fossil gas
The best way to fix gas leaks is to remove gas lines. As we prepare for a decarbonized energy system and communities explore building electrification as an alternative to gas, utilities should plan for a controlled contraction of the gas distribution system. This research shows the importance of prioritizing communities of color, which historically have borne the greatest burdens of energy systems, in the energy transition.