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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Looking for Leaks

Uploaded: Mar 24, 2019
You can help the planet, your home, and your wallet by looking for gas leaks. Not bad for a few minutes of work. Here’s why, and how.

Along with cattle and landfills, natural gas is a top source of methane in the US. A big reason why is that our natural gas systems, which are large and complex, have a leak problem. They leak methane from fracking sites, from pipelines, from customer gas meters. These leaks amounted to about 13 million metric tons of methane in 2015. (1) Since methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, that means that natural gas is not as clean as we’ve been led to believe.

How big are the leaks? Pictures can help. The chart below shows carbon dioxide emissions in the US from burning fuel for electricity. (2) Even though we generate less electricity from coal than from gas, coal creates over twice the emissions. Coal burns much dirtier than natural gas.

Source of carbon dioxide emissions from US electric power (2017)

But that chart only reflects the burning of the fuel -- it doesn’t account for the leaks in processing and distribution. If you incorporate one-third of the gas leaks into the chart (this is an approximation, reflecting the fact that one-third of our natural gas is used for electricity) the picture for electricity emissions is quite different. With the leaking methane going straight into the air, providing much more of a warming effect than carbon dioxide, natural gas starts looking a lot more like coal. (3)

Accounting for natural gas leaks in emissions from US electric power, measured in CO2 equivalents over a 20-year timeframe

Gas leaks are a major problem. Not only are they a big source of methane, they are costly and dangerous. We need to track them down. But how do you find an invisible gas leak?

Too often, we don’t. Take the Aliso Canyon leak almost 3.5 years ago, which spewed about 100,000 metric tons into the environment. Here’s what it would have looked like if methane were black. (This snapshot is from a video that was shot with a special infrared camera almost two months after the leak was first detected.)

This leak was so big that it was doubling the daily methane emissions for California’s entire gas production early on. But methane is invisible, so despite the size of the leak, we don’t even know when it started. (4)

Detecting (and repairing) methane leaks is essential to hitting California’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. California Senate Bill 1371, passed in 2014, aims directly at this, requiring utilities to improve leak management practices and be more transparent about which leaks they are finding and when they are fixing them. The bill is driving some promising changes. Detection is getting more comprehensive, timely, and accurate. As one example, PG&E is testing specially outfitted cars that will detect large leaks along streets and enable faster repairs. This follows an earlier collaboration between the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth, which had customized StreetView cars driving around 15 cities looking for methane leaks. Their easy-to-read writeup has interactive maps showing leaks in each of those cities. Take a look to get a sense of what is going on underground.

But what can each of us do? We don’t have custom cars or methane “sniffers”. I noticed an interesting stat when I was reviewing some of the many reports that have been coming in as a result of SB 1371. It turns out that PG&E reports that 20% of its emissions come from customer meters. As you can see in their presentation, when they examined 200 PG&E meters, they found 58 leaks! They report identifying leaks with a simple soap solution. So I thought I’d take a look at my meter. I mixed some dish soap and water together and rubbed it on the pipes of my meter. To my surprise, I found a leak, which you can see below and in this video. I could smell it when I got close enough.

I live in Palo Alto, so I called the Utilities Dispatch line at 650-329-2579. Within an hour or so, Paul came out to take a look. He reported that it was a decent sized leak, about 40% of the "lower explosive limit". He tightened it and remeasured, and it was gone. He also repainted the meter for good measure.

Paul said that leaks often occur in the "isolation joints", which have a rubber seal intended to prevent electrical conduction. The city puts a small charge on the gas pipes to help prevent corrosion (this is called “cathodic protection”), and workmen sometimes mistakenly ground things to gas pipes instead of to water pipes. So the isolation joint helps to protect both the home and the pipeline.

So, next time you have a minute or two, mix up some dish soap and water, or have your kids do it. Rub it around the joints of the meter and look for bubbles. You can also do this on pipes near your water heater or furnace. If the soap bubbles show a leak, here are some numbers to call:
- PG&E: 1-800-743-5000
- Palo Alto: 650-329-2579

Hopefully you won’t find anything. But if you do, you will decrease your emissions, make your home safer, and perhaps even lower your gas bill!

Next week we’ll take a look at some work going on at Stanford to improve estimates of how much methane is leaking into the air, from oil and gas systems and from our homes.

Notes and References

1. A widely cited 2018 Science article reported this updated value for methane leaks in our oil and natural gas systems. No access? No worries. This writeup by one of the authors has a summary and some background.

2. The electrical mix for the US is available from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA also provides the emissions figures, and the stat that one-third of natural gas is used for electricity.

3. Methane degrades faster than carbon dioxide. It is 86x worse than CO2 over a 20-year timeframe, but only 34x worse over a 100-year timeframe. I look at the shorter timeframe in this blog post because of the urgent need to turn around our emissions. Experts use both, depending on the context. As you can imagine, there is often contention over which factor to use.

4. An impassioned writeup in Vox, written while the Aliso Canyon leak was still in progress, has this stat and many others.

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Posted by Grumpier Cold Guy, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards,
on Mar 25, 2019 at 3:23 pm

How timely! Earlier this month, I got into my car and smelled 'natural' gas. As I drove away, I pondered why that would be. Then I realized my car is parked next to my gas meters. So I called the city; and they came out immediately, discovered a leak and'red tagged' my gas line until its fixed. They put a physical lock on the gas line so that no one, including the plumber, can turn it back on.

We called and got a plumber out asap; he fixed the leak and pressure tested the gas line (fixed within 2 hours).

But here's the rub - When you get red-tagged, the City requires it be fixed and the entire gas lines have a pressure test (to find any other leaks) by a licensed plumber. The gas line is turned off with a physical lock that the licensed plumber cannot remove.

Once done, you need a 'PERMIT' from the city to approve the leak repair. Well - that's another day to get the permit and schedule an inspector to come out to conduct another 'pressure test' in his presence. In the meantime, the gas is literally locked up and you can't heat the house even if the repair is completed.

So - here's my timeline:

Wed - Discover gas leak; red-tag by City; repair by licensed plumber. Done within 3 hours of discovery and red tag. BUT - Gas line is locked down during cold spell in March until permit is given and inspection approves repair. No heating of home Wednesday night.

Thursday - Plumber goes to City Hall; gets Permit and schedules Inspection asap. But inspection can't occur same day; it has to be following day. In the meantime, no gas to heat the home or cook. No heating of home Thursday night.

Friday - Plumber and Inspector come out. Inspector approves repair and unlocks gas useage. Fixed by Friday noon.

My biggest concern, and I told PA Utilities, is what happens if I was elderly and didn't have alternatives to heating their homes or going to another place?

People could get hurt in those conditions.

I understand the balance of safety, but to lock down a gas line when it's repaired immediately by a professional - and then force homeowners to wait approximately 40 hours before the gas can be turned back on creates problems for elderly or families with children.

I asked PA Utilities about this, if they had any flexibility on this problem, allowing licensed plumbers to 'unlock' the gas so a family can have heat once it's fixed; and they said they'd look into it.

To date, there's no specific answer or response. I'm good because I had the problem fixed quickly. But I worry about next cold spell when there is a gas leak.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 25, 2019 at 7:12 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Wow, that must have been a big leak! The more I've been reading about this, the more it impresses me how potentially dangerous some of this gas infrastructure is. And then however bad it is here, think about in the LA area, or other places, where huge gas fields and abandoned wells lurk underneath. I'm going to do a post on that shortly, but take a look at this article about an explosion in a Ross Dress for Less store in the middle of the day, due to a leak from -- they still don't know where. All it took was someone punching a timesheet to set it off. And there are schools built on top of things like that!

I'm glad yours worked out okay, and that you were thoughtful enough to do something about the gas that you smelled!

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Mar 26, 2019 at 4:38 pm

Cheerful 2010 Palo Alto natural gas pipeline article by Sue Dremann: Web Link
I do remember El Carmelo reconfiguring itself, though that may have been a pilot light issue rather than a more traditional leak. Unsure of the 1966 verdict.

Current PG&E work is delineated on our utilities webpage at Web Link
in case anyone wonders why Loma Verde and Alma Street have been dug up.

Posted by No Cause For Concern?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 10:28 am

I smell gas from time to time. It is intermittent. Could be coming from the apartment next door but we have a no-smoking mandate in the complex so I imagine the chances of a fire or explosion is minimal.

Contacted the property manager who assured me that everything is OK. He said there is an additive used to detect natural gas leakages & sometimes other scents are mistaken for it. I was also told that to retrofit the gas lines in our building would lead to a monthly rental increase & non of the tenants want that.

As a result... those who do smoke, smoke away from the property. The landlord assured us that gas line problems (i.e. San Bruno) are usually the fault of PG&E & they can be held financially accountable for any fire or explosion to the property.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 4:30 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@musical -- Do you know there is a government organization that collects data on gas pipeline incidents? Lots of cheer (not) in there. See links at the bottom of this page.

I was also curious whether gas or electric causes more incidents in homes. The US Fire Administration has some statistics. From what I can tell, it must be electric, and by a lot, since gas leaks don't even have their own category. But I haven't really pored through this stuff. (There's more here.)

@No Cause -- Eesh. If I were you, I'd call next time you smell it. This stuff is no joke. Roofs blow off buildings. The gas company will come, at no cost to you. There's really no reason not to call. And it's not just smoke that can ignite a fire. I've heard hammering a nail (for example) can do it as well. Or an electronic device might spark.

Posted by No Cause For Concern?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 5:24 pm

The landlord has threatened to evict anyone who causes a 'problem' even if it involves a gas line inspection or rat infestation.

We cannot afford to relocate or hire an attorney to defend tenants rights.

Leaking gas and vermine are things we will just have to live with.

Being poor & 'illegal' leaves us no options.

It is different for wealthy Palo Alto residents.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 5:58 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@No Cause -- I realize housing is a nightmare here. But consider: Are the people who lived in the warehouse in Oakland happy with their decision to not report safety violations? Gas leaks, like the electrical violations at the warehouse, are no joke.

Posted by Rats!, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:43 pm

> I was also curious whether gas or electric causes more incidents in homes.

It depends on the wiring. Older houses are more hazardous than the newer ones.

We have older wiring & have encountered several outages due to rats knawing on the insulation. They get zapped & sometimes circuits will short.

It's a nuisance but we don't have to set-out rat traps. The only problem is after a few days, we notice a distinct odor & it can be a hassle trying to find the fried rat. By then they are usually maggot infested & it is very disgusting.

When this occurs between the walls there is nothing you can do to get rid of the rat or the smell.

Modern wiring with conduit will prevent this from occurring but it will be very expensive to re-wire an older Victorian. [Portion deleted due to racist reference.]

Posted by Middle Finger To PG&E, a resident of Woodside,
on Mar 29, 2019 at 8:38 am

We have electricity for certain appliances but don't use gas.

Our fireplaces (2) serve all of our heating & cooking needs.

Having opted to 'go pioneer', we heat our water for washing, hand laundry & bathing in the fireplace & just add cold water to control the temperature.

A portable gas grill stationed outdoors is also used for heating water.

Cooking is done in the fireplace via Dutch Oven, hanging kettle or grill.

Portable ceramic electric heaters keep the house warm as needed.

We go through lots of firewood & on 'spare the air days' we simply go to a restaurant & use the portable gas grill for water heating purposes. In the rural areas, burning wood is more accepted than in the suburbs.

Next project is going off the grid. Our solar panels have been installed & we are now adding the battery storage unit.

The only public utility we will be using is running water.

We have since turned off the gas lines

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 29, 2019 at 4:04 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@musical -- It looks from this PG&E map that the pipeline work is happening on the same pipeline cited in the 2011 article you mention, namely pipeline 132 (yes, the San Bruno pipeline). I checked with PG&E and they said that they used a "smart pig" to inspect the pipeline as part of a routine inspection (short, interesting video here, from an earlier pipeline inspection), and decided to update a few segments of pipeline, which they are doing now.

"In general, inline inspection tools are equipped with robotic cameras and sensors to check pipe thickness and welds, while detecting areas that may require additional testing. PG&E performed excavations of the pipeline to allow for a more detailed examination and will now perform upgrades, as necessary.

The pipeline continues to operate safely, and gas service to our customers will not be interrupted during this safety and reliability work. PG&E is committed to working closely with municipalities in the area and we will continue to share information about this project. Additionally, we have a customer team dedicated to this project that is working to keep residents updated every step of the way. Residents with questions may contact local PG&E representative Crystal Jewel at 408-725-2240."

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