Each week Terrain.org will publish new writing coupled with a map. This is the eighth publication in the Spill Stories series.
The first problem, of course, is that gas is odorless and invisible. Before natural gas was a commodity oil drillers happened upon it while poking around for what they actually wanted. Early coal miners stumbled on a version of the gas, too, and, in the stuffy shafts of their workplace, the methane in it could kill. The first safety technologies were rudimentary. Before canaries, lone human scouts crawled underground wrapped in damp blankets, leading with long sticks lit like a match. They swept the wicks over mine walls looking for pockets of gas. They hoped any explosion would be small.
Today, as U.S. natural gas booms and coal is pushed from market, detection technologies are more sophisticated. Gas companies add mercaptans to make gas smell like sulphur. Workers wave handheld chemical sniffers to survey sites for leaks. Or else they use infrared cameras to pinpoint problems. But for every advance there is also a weakness: mercaptans are most noticeable indoors, sniffers must be kept calibrated, and cameras falter when there is cold weather or wind. Presumably, a gas optimist would say that the technologies are getting better, that any gaps in public safety are always being closed.
The second problem is spatial. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of wells that supply the gas boom. Imagine the miles of pipelines webbed across the U.S. for transport. Imagine the compression stations dotted along the way, every hundred miles, more often at elevation, repressurizing gas to ensure it reaches target: the storage facilities, processing plants, and other infrastructures that deliver gas to homes and businesses and schools. Hold all that together and then imagine every tiny valve, gasket, and component that might fail. They often do: Studies say that anywhere from .5 to 8 percent of all gas drilled in the U.S. is lost to leaks.
For this problem there are also technologies—often, a map or survey meant to help visualize the distribution and scope of leaks. Some maps list data reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the government agency responsible for, in their own words, “protect[ing] people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy.” A survey by Boston University researchers measured fugitive emissions with a system of Tupperware, buckets, and plastic sandboxes. Still other maps are made by GPS spectrometers fitted to cars. But PHMSA only tracks leaks when people die or get hurt or big money is spent; and developing fleets of custom-made capture chambers is expensive; and spectrometer accuracy can vary wildly. Technologies for seeing scope are often imperfect. A truism: maps and surveys visualize and invisibilize both.
The third problem has to do with the nature of gas: namely, that it moves. That it moves invisibly from all the many places from which it leaks. If a leak doesn’t cause immediate disaster—an explosion, a mass sickening—the gas can go undetected as it spreads through the surrounding air. And gas takes time to work its worst effects, which are at present only partially understood. Those effects might involve human health—chronic respiratory problems and cancer—or climate change. Though natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal, it releases methane, which traps greenhouse gases far more efficiently. Scientists are still figuring out just how much more, and regulators are still figuring out how to accurately measure emissions. Hurricane Harvey suggested one example of what to expect as the methodologies get sorted. How the storm triggered floods, loosed toxins, and ruined homes; how damage compounded damage compounded more. The way effects cascade down on people in the gap before certainty is reached.
The fourth problem lies at some nexus of complexity, money, and political will. Another Boston study, published in 2015, found that local gas companies knew about 1,868 active leaks, some of which had been on record for 30 years. But pipelines lie beneath city streets and sidewalks, it would cost money to go in for repairs, and no law requires the fix, so the leaks are allowed to keep leaking.
The stalemate is a mild version of the problem of considering natural gas safety in a country with some of the richest gas deposits in the world. In such a country, good faith can’t be counted on. Complexity can be the least of the barriers.
So maybe people are still playing scout. What can’t be seen, sniffed, mapped, contained, conceived, or willed is still felt in bodies first. Bodies are buffers, the stop-gap technology for absorbing dangers that can’t and won’t be otherwise controlled. This is the bargain being made in today’s gas boom; the material and moral question, just how much of a problem we understand that to be.
Header photo by GORBACHEVSERGEYFOTO, courtesy Pixabay.