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Two Ways Natural Gas May Be Escaping At Your Meter

A normal gas meter as viewed by a FLIR thermal imaging camera, Oct. 8, 2017.
Ingrid Lobet / inewsource
A normal gas meter as viewed by a FLIR thermal imaging camera, Oct. 8, 2017.
Two Ways Natural Gas May Be Escaping At Your Meter
Two Ways Natural Gas May Be Escaping At Your Meter GUEST:Ingrid Lobet, reporter, inewsource

You might be surprised to hear that natural gas is leaking from residential gas meters up and down the state of California. In fact, the state estimates those make up 25% of all gas leak from pipeline infrastructure. Ingrid Lobet has the story.Contractor is kneeling next to a gas meter on his job running a handheld gas detector.I can smell it right here.He test for leaks because his company specializes in energy efficiency and is finding it is not unusual.25% of the homes we get some sort of ahead.This is not a big one over here.25% of his jobs could have a small gas leak is that possible? State documents reviewed that a lot of gas is leaking out at the meter. The number one source of gas lost for SDG&E. No one has been checking for these small leaks. Virginia was with the defense fund says that is a problem.I think people need to be aware that there is a lot of methane leaking from the natural gas supply chain. I think the other thing that people need to be aware of this that they are paying for this loss gas.Paying for it because state law allows utilities to charge customers for gas that is lost. Leaks near the meter at up to $5 million with of gas in California. Unnecessary because utility should be finding and closing up all leaks.We are finding far more leaks than utilities typically find in their systems.They find the larger leaks along their pipelines.Employees learn how to find and fix leaks. SDG&E cruiser out daily searching for leaks using trucks mounted with sensing equipment and patrol the streets were pipelines like underground.We have about 20 gas patrollers and their full-time job is to scour the entire county and look for leaks. That is their job function.That is a training supervisor. Fixing leaks is a priority he says.We have about 120 field employees.They respond to customer complaints and we go out and determine whether it is our gas, sewer gas or other type of sent.With gap -- gas leaks, safety is not the only concern. Natural gas is contributing to global warning. So Virginia says fixing the small safe leaks matters.They are just going to continue to release gas into the atmosphere your after year after year.They say they don't do that. Every league finds is fixed promptly.We don't have any back log of leaks and when we find them, we repair them.No one is checking for small leaks at the meter. When they visit with recognition of climate change growing, the time for finding the small leaks may be here.Joining me now is Ingrid Lobet. Just to be clear, you're talking about small natural gas leaks outside the house. Mainly around the gas meter outside.That is right. The state does it know beyond that they currently have researchers out with sensitive equipment trying to now that down.Some of that natural gas is built into the system to relieve pressure in the pipes. Tell us about that.Some tend to notice things in more detail. They might've noticed this part of the meter that serves their home or condo or apartment. It's like a pancake shaped device and helps regulate the pressure between the higher pressure of the gas line and lower pressure inside the home. It gives offer burp small amounts of natural gas or methane. That is what this is going to do. It's a surprise that were using something that is designed to release something that is both a valuable fuel and strong climate change gas at every single home. It's important to do this and to fully understand the cost of every fuel we use and officials think that this loss is only a tiny fraction of the gas that is leaking out near the meter.How much natural gas is leaking out for myTo bring gas to your home, it takes a whole network. There's a big pipeline that crosses Arizona and that branches down to smaller and smaller pipelines. If you add up all those leaks for the most recent year that we have, it was more total gas in leaks then the well disaster in LA, which was the largest known release of natural gas in U.S. history there another way you can look at it is it is enough energy to power 285,000 vehicle trips around the globe.What is the biggest source of the natural gas leaks in the states delivery system?If you look at the state white figures, the largest source of leaks are from pipelines. It turns out in San Diego county, the very largest category are these leaks at the meter. They make up one quarter of all gas network leaks in the state.Is there anything that could be done to prevent the leaks?There would need to be an increase focused on very small leaks and that would mean you would have to find them and in order to find them, you need sensitive equipment. Some utilities have put this highly sensitive equipment in some of their vehicles. Sanyo gas and electric are not using that equipment.In your reporting, you found that a family discovered that gas was leaking out of their underground pipes because their plans kept dying. Tell us about that.That was a harrowing experience for the family. This last July they found someone in their front yard was a gas inspector and informed the family that there had been a gas leak for at least a year. They said the leak was big enough to be dangerous. That makes it in its entirety for any utility company but they sent another inspector and measured a much lower level so it did not get fixed for another two months. It was hard for this family. The father said that his son said is the house going to blow up? Also because they are extremely mindful of their carbon emissions. Here this leak was just in excess of all their other carefully limited omissions. It reminded me of CW owners who find out they are supposedly clean diesel car is a polluter.Not every company fixes is -- all the gas leaks they find when they're not dangerous?That's a fast-changing area and we will know more about it in a few weeks. In the past no, there were more than 21,000 nondangerous leaks active on December 31, 2015 going over into 2016. The utility companies are required under California law to reduce the amount of this climate change gas. They are fixing more of them.It sounds like SDG&E is really on this problem monitoring the county for leaks. What more could they be doing?You are right. Not one of those 21,000 leaks, was in San Diego county. SDG&E told me in the state confirm that. That means they're not letting go any leak that they find. Does not mean there finding every tiny link let -- tiny leak. Thank you.Thank you for having me.

Natural gas is leaking — sometimes deliberately — from residential gas meters up and down the state of California.

That surprise is buried in state documents, a review by inewsource has found.

The leaks do not mean you are in danger of an explosion. But tiny amounts of natural gas escaping from gas meters not only cost you money, they can be the largest single source of leaks for a utility, as they are for San Diego Gas & Electric.

Renters and owners pay for this gas because utilities are allowed to charge customers for gas that is lost or unaccounted for. The bill for all that lost gas, from meters and otherwise, is about $20 million a year in California.

Dan Thomsen, whose company Building Doctors focuses on energy efficiency, said on about 25 percent of the homes he surveys, he finds a gas leak somewhere.

RELATED: Electricity Alone Powers One Quarter Of US Homes

Sometimes the whiffs of gas even come out by design, from a part of the meter known as the pressure regulator. Every meter has one. It is a little-known fact that they burp off gas to relieve pressure.

“That needs exposing right there,” Thomsen said “By capturing those fumes, we would save a god-awful amount of things that are really, really, bad for the environment.”

Natural gas is the consumer-friendly name for methane, which is attracting more attention because of its significance for climate change. When natural gas is released, it traps heat in the air. It plays this role 84 times more powerfully than the better-known greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, when you compare short-term effects.

Most methane in California comes from livestock and landfills, not industry. But the total natural gas leaked from the gas delivery network in California in 2015 was more than the Aliso Canyon well disaster in Los Angeles. That is enough energy to power 285,000 vehicle trips around the globe at the equator.

A quarter of all the gas leaking out of pipelines and natural gas infrastructure is estimated to be coming out near gas meters.

Those small puffs from the pressure regulator are only a tiny fraction. The California Air Resources Board estimates some 800 times that much is leaking out of pipe joints near the meter. They are not sure exactly where and have contracted to find out.

These estimates are a best guess on the part of the board, based on information it gets from utilities, and on a study done in 1996. The board uses estimates because no one routinely measures leaks at the meter.

San Diego Gas & Electric managers were more comfortable talking about leaks as a safety issue than a climate one.

Pete Zepeda, a gas operations site leader, said the company does not consider the burps from the pressure regulators to be leaks.

“If equipment is functioning normally, that is not a leak,” he said. “It is not something we are being irresponsible over.”

When it comes to actual leaks, they are a high priority for SDG&E, said Scott Hazlett, the utility’s gas distribution training supervisor.

Twenty gas patrollers in specially equipped trucks scour roads in San Diego County where pipelines run underneath, looking for leaks. They do nothing else, Hazlett said. The company also has 120 customer service field employees who respond to calls when someone smells gas, he said.

Some leaks go unfixed

The main emphasis for utility companies has been identifying safety risks, not the threat to climate stability. Leaks that present no safety risk have often gone unfixed from one year to the next. More than 21,000 small leaks statewide were carried over from 2015 to 2016.

One of those could have been the leak Sean Armstrong discovered at the edge of the property he shares with his wife, three children, mother and a tenant in the small city of Arcata in Northern California. During the recession, he said, they planted blueberry bushes on a bare patch in the front yard, adding to a variety of fruit they grow. But the plants died. He planted them again. The new ones died.

Armstrong did not know that circles of dead landscaping can be a sign that natural gas is leaking out underground. On July 13, he noticed a man walking through his yard. It turned out to be a gas company contractor who informed him a leak had been identified on the property a year earlier.

The contractor measured a gas concentration high enough to be flammable, Armstrong said. Soon after, another gas employee arrived. He judged the concentration to be lower, and the situation less urgent.

The leak was not only a scare for the family, it was also a blow. They make a conscious effort to limit their emissions.

“It’s killing me that my methane leak is polluting equal to my total CO2 production, and it’s been going on for an unknown length of time,” Armstrong posted on Facebook on July 14.

Their gas company, Pacific Gas & Electric, fixed the leak this month. The utility confirmed the dates in Armstrong’s story.

True picture may be worse

Leaks like the one at Armstrong’s are a special worry for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit that has made methane a priority of its work.

“They are going to just continue to release methane gas into the atmosphere year after year after year,” said Virginia Palacios, who was a senior research analyst with the group in Austin, Texas, when she spoke with inewsource.

The group believes the true amount of leaked natural gas may be greater than estimates. In one collaboration with Google Earth Outreach and Colorado State University, it outfitted vehicles with especially sensitive methane sensing equipment.

“We are finding far more leaks than utilities generally find in their systems,” Palacios said.

The Google Earth Outreach teams use equipment that measures methane down to parts per billion. Utility companies, including SDG&E, traditionally look for leaks using equipment that can detect when natural gas in the air reaches parts per million.

When someone smells gas and calls the gas company, the response is prompt. Technicians categorize the leak. Grade 1 leaks pose an actual or potential hazard. They are fixed quickly. Grade 2 leaks are not hazardous at the time they are detected but could become dangerous. These are set for repair. Grade 3 leaks are not expected to become hazardous. These are the ones that have been left for years.

Natural gas remains in the atmosphere, like a molecular warming blanket, for approximately 12 years.

RELATED: How Natural Gas Became The Dirty Fuel, At Least In Your Home

Hazlett, the distribution training supervisor with SDG&E, acknowledged that the equipment the utility uses to detect escaping gas is not the most sensitive on the market. PG&E, on the other hand, has 10 SUVs outfitted with next-generation equipment to spot and fix leaks.

The San Diego utility was ahead by a different measure, however. None of the 21,483 California leaks carried over from 2015 to 2016 was theirs.

“We don’t have any backlog of leaks,” Hazlett said. Not even the leaks they find and grade as 3. “We still attack those the same we attack any other leak,” he said.

A spokesman for the California Air Resources Board confirmed this.

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