For anyone interested in climate change, methane is notorious. Not only is it the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted from human activities in the United States, it is roughly 25 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas than CO2, the most famous of the greenhouse gases.
There’s another thing about CH4 (methane) that makes it especially creepy: there is a lot of it locked up in frozen places on the planet, like the deep oceans and tundra. As the planet warms and more and more of what was frozen thaws, the potential for what some have referred to as the methane “time bomb” increases. This refers to the scenario in which warmer ocean waters or Arctic temperatures release large amounts of methane, which then sets up a “feedback loop”—the resulting increase in warming releases still more methane…and on and on.
At the moment, since that has apparently not happened, 33 percent of methane gas emissions in the United States come from releases associated with the “production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution” of fossil fuels, according to the U. S. EPA, including oil and coal.
In fact, natural gas is about 75 percent methane, and most of the emissions noted above are from leaks or other unintentional releases. When natural gas makes it all the way to being successfully burned as a fuel, the resulting emissions are CO2—not great, but 25 times better than CH4 itself. And natural gas is still, as fossil fuels go, far less polluting as a greenhouse gas than oil (29 percent more CO2 equivalent) or coal (46 percent more CO2e).
Improving efficiency, improving health
So improving the efficiency of natural gas as a fuel by reducing emissions “upstream”—before it gets to the point of use as a fuel—would be beneficial for a couple of reasons. First, CH4 released prior to burning wastes fuel and requires the use of more fossil fuel to replace what’s lost, which causes more greenhouse-gas pollution. Second, as noted, the release of CH4 into the atmosphere contributes to the buildup of heat-trapping gases.
In addition, methane is one of the gases which, when it interacts with sunlight in warm-weather conditions, produces ozone, a significant health hazard for individuals with asthma or other respiratory illnesses. So, all in all, keeping the gas in the can, so to speak, is a very good idea.
In Boston, Massachusetts, natural gas made up about a quarter of all GHG emissions in 2013, according to the city’s 2014 climate action plan, and represented the second biggest source of emissions (after electricity generation, some of which, of course, was from natural gas). In 2015, the New England Grassroots Environment Fund gave the Boston Climate Action Network (BostonCAN) a Grow grant to help with a very novel approach to reducing CH4 emissions in the city, and saving consumers money in the process.
Whole lotta leakin’ goin’ on
The group estimates that the 3,000 or so natural gas leaks in the city release enough fuel to heat 200,000 homes a year. That’s pretty significant in a city with a US Census population of just over 667,000 in July, 2015, let alone that the leaks “are the largest driver of global warming in Boston—larger than all of transportation, all buildings, or all electrical use,” according to BostonCAN’s estimates. And then there’s the fact that gas customers get billed for the lost gas as well as what they actually use.
The problem, quite simply, is old pipes, some with more than a century of use; they are rusting out. So BostonCAN joined with Clean Water Action and other local groups in an effort to put pressure on the local gas supplier, National Grid, to do a faster, better job at fixing leaks and replacing pipes.
It started when some BostonCAN members accompanied a Boston University graduate student on a “gas-leak safari,” according to Dick Clapp, a BostonCAN member and retired professor of environmental health, who is currently a guest lecturer at Boston University School of Public Health. He says the fact that “there was someone actually measuring these, and there are some graphic apps that show these leaks on the maps” spurred the work of BostonCAN. “It’s a really important way of showing people what’s going on in their own neighborhoods, so it seemed like a really important issue for us as a group that does grassroots work.”
BostonCAN and its Boston grassroots allies began meeting with neighborhood groups and community leaders, making short presentations, focusing first on low-income neighborhoods because, Clapp notes, “in Boston, the highest incidence of asthma is in the lowest income areas.
Making healthy neighbors
“Because in the hot summer weather, methane is converted to ozone, natural gas makes respiratory disease and asthma worse, we go further than the climate impact to say that this is an environmental justice issue as well,” Clapp explains. “It’s a combination of the explosive threat in the long term and short-term health threat for people with respiratory disease and asthma.”
BostonCAN’s work is “careful, step-by-step” outreach and communications work that includes listening, education, organizing and strategizing in order to insure neighborhood buy-in and cooperation. Whenever they got a chance, the group “tabled” at local events, often printing out maps that showed gas leaks in neighborhoods close by as a way of engaging people.
BostonCAN also hires a professional “leak detector” and relies on the cooperative work of others in developing maps of gas leaks in the city. “The first maps we got from the BU graduate student herself (Margaret Hendrick); those are now four years old,” Clapp says.
Click to see leaks near you
“The more recent ones—the same basic process—are available through a Cambridge group called HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team). There are maps of Boston by neighborhood and when we do tabling at farmers’ markets and neighborhood and community meetings, we print out a map of the gas leaks that have been identified in that immediate area and people come over and look at it and look at their street,” he says, noting that they are an excellent engagement tool.
Engagement is the name of the game, really, getting people motivated in the streets and on the phone, Clapp notes. “We have had groups of people roaming the streets, especially on occasions like Wake Up the Earth, a celebration in Jamaica Plain on the first weekend of May,” Clapp says. “We go on guerrilla patrols the night before and put signs up. So that’s one kind of a patrol, where we break up into two- or three-person groups,” he explains, adding that the signs they place at leak sites either instruct people to monitor fixed leaks to make sure they stay that way, or to continue to report leaks that haven’t yet been fixed, by calling the 800 number maintained by National Grid.
“There’s another program,” Clapp reports, “that a group called Mothers Out Front is trying to get going called Adopt a Gas Leak and that’s to go to unrepaired leaks, which are reported, and keep pressuring the utilities to effect repair. They also testify before the Boston City Council about the problem of gas leaks.”
Multi-faceted grassroots work
Testifying, calling civic leaders at all levels, pestering the utilities, and showing up on the streets are all tactics required to solve the problem of natural gas leaks. BostonCAN has been using these tactics on issues of climate, clean energy and community resilience in Boston for a long time. The group’s grants from the Grassroots Fund include, in this century:
- a 2007 grant to build a grassroots network of Boston residents who understand that by understanding global warming and its local, regional and national solutions and becoming politically involved, they can help mitigate the effects of global warming;
- a grant in 2010 to harness the power of neighbor-to-neighbor connections to increase community empowerment, conserve financial and natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the number of good, local jobs in the energy-efficiency field through organizing three "green blocks" in Jamaica Plain, MA; and
- a grant in 2011 to hire a bi-cultural, bi-lingual, full-time staff member for 6 months and to increase the group's role as a network hub in greater Boston, linking neighborhood-based organizations with sustainability missions throughout Boston and beyond.
“The Grassroots Fund’s support for the grassroots efforts of BostonCAN is commensurate with their hard work in the real trenches of climate and health and environmental justice,” says Julia Dundorf, Executive Director of the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. “Year after year, the group has continued to find new energy and new ways to engage the citizens of Boston in reducing greenhouse gases, embracing renewable energy and making sure city and state officials hear the will of the people loud and clear.”
BostonCAN this year is mounting a new way of making their voices heard. Called Cantastoria, after a medieval practice of street theater involving singing a story using a narrator and a chorus, the group’s troupe is booking street fairs, farmers’ markets, and other events, Clapp says.
“We use three canvases; the first shows gas leaks as a problem; the second panel shows pipelines bringing even more gas into the state and then the third panel is alternatives, basically renewable energy, and that includes more efficient homes and solar panels; so we tell a story with that, ” he explains, adding that he’s “one of the people who flips the canvas—and one of our members is basically the narrator who tells the story.” Other members form the chorus.
“We’ve updated it because there was the recent victory where the Kinder Morgan pipeline in western Mass was canceled, so we put that in our script for this summer,” he says. In an attempt to reach young people, BostonCAN has put on the Cantastoria in local schools, “one in a science class and one in a kind of ‘how to be politically active’ electives class in a Dorchester/Hyde Park high school,” Clapp says.
“The idea was to see if kids could get politically active in this, first of all, get interested in gas leaks and then to see if they might be interested in street theater to convey a message. So that’s another small piece of our work, but it’s part of our effort to reach young people,” Clapps says.
“The high school social action class actually went well. Before we came to the class, they had a field trip to Dudley Square to study the issue of gas leaks and when they saw our Cantastoria they said ‘Well, that’s fine, but we think our generation would be more interested in, say, spoken word or freestyle rap’.”
Clapp points out that many CAN members are “ex-60s types. So the feedback was ‘That’s nice for you old people, but we’d probably do it differently’,” Clapp says, adding, “Which is fine, good! We hope they do!”