“Unaccounted for gas” — the stuff that leaks out before it gets to a customer’s furnace or stove — amounted to 3.2% of total sales, according to a 2020 Ameren Missouri report. Credit: Michael/Creative Commons

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas that was recently spotlighted by the International Panel on Climate Change, was leaking from a pipeline down the street from Robin Ganahl’s Kansas City home a year ago.

A neighbor living close to the leak had been reporting it to the gas company for months, said Ganahl, an activist with the local chapter of Mothers Out Front, a national organization aimed at minimizing climate chaos. “They could smell it inside their house sometimes.”

The gas company eventually sealed the leak after Ganahl sought intervention from her state representative, but the episode caused her to wonder how much natural gas might be seeping from broken pipes throughout Kansas City and across the state of Missouri. 

Climate scientists and activists have been targeting methane in recent months as a major cause of global heating — and as one of the most promising and immediate avenues for quickly reining in emissions. For 20 years after its initial release, methane retains heat at about 80 times the rate of carbon dioxide. 

According to the recent IPCC report, a determined effort could reduce methane pollution from fossil fuels, waste and agriculture by 45% by 2030, shaving about .3 degrees Celsius from the expected global temperature increase.

Ganahl asked regulators to require the state’s gas companies to pinpoint active leaks on a map and to make that information publicly accessible. Her hope: that when gas customers have a sense of the scope of the leak problem, they will pressure the utilities to seal gas leaks more quickly.

Missouri gives wide latitude to gas companies regarding repairs. Only Class 1 leaks, those posing “an immediate hazard to a building and/or the general public,” require “immediate corrective action.”

Class 2 leaks, defined as those “requiring action as soon as possible,” generally require repair within 45 days, although some can be recategorized as Class 3, giving the company five years to make a repair, or Class 4 — meaning repair is not required.

Massachusetts and California already require gas companies to disclose details about the location and size of gas leaks.

“They say one of the most impactful things we can do in the next few years is to stop methane emissions,” Ganahl said. “It’s really accelerating the climate crisis and … by fixing those leaks, that’s an immediate reduction in methane emissions.”

Missouri’s gas companies have pushed back hard. In April and May, both Ameren Missouri and Spire filed documents with regulators predicting that publicizing the location of leaks could lead to sabotage attempts or cause a customer smelling gas to assume it is already known to the company and therefore not report a dangerous situation.

“There is no way to control what the public will do with that information, and the risk of an attack on the natural gas system is far too great if this information is made publicly available,” Spire warned in a filing.

Ameren Missouri wrote that it is “deeply concerned that a publicly available active leak map may provide a false sense of security to the public, and inhibit timely odorant complaint reporting and follow-up Company on-site investigations.”

It also wondered what such documentation might cost the company.

The federal Department of Transportation requires gas companies to file annual reports that provide a more general picture of leaks. For the 2020 calendar year, for example, Ameren Missouri reported that it repaired 130 breaks in main lines and 438 cracks in smaller service lines. Also, it stated that there were 194 active leaks at the start of the year and 85 at the end.

“Unaccounted for gas” — the stuff that leaks out before it gets to a customer’s furnace or stove — amounted to 3.2% of total sales, according to the report. Although customers aren’t using that gas, they do pay for it.

While a Missouri Public Service Commission spokesperson said the agency was continuing to consider the request, Ganahl said a commission staffer told her the staff “will likely not send the gas leaks issue to the commission at this time.”

Although the bulk of methane leaks occur at wellheads where gas is pumped from the ground, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 7% of leaked methane escapes from the distribution lines that bring gas directly into homes and businesses. Even though they apparently contribute relatively modestly to the larger methane-leak picture, cracks in the distribution system need plugging, said Joe von Fischer, a biology professor at Colorado State University who researches the processes that generate greenhouse gases.

Gas companies prioritize leaks according to their explosive potential. Leaks that could produce a large accumulation of gas in a confined space are at risk of exploding, von Fischer said, and so get quick attention. Beyond those, gas companies have some leeway.

“There are some leaks that, no matter how big they are, if they’re not considered to be at risk of exploding, the company is not required to fix it at all, ever,” Ganahl said. In 2015, a team of researchers at Boston University scrutinized leaks in Boston’s aged and brittle pipeline network and determined that about 7% of them accounted for 50% of leaked gas. Mothers Out Front and other activist organizations used the information to persuade state and local legislators to pass laws that both require publication of leak maps and repair of leaks determined to have significant environmental impact.

Ganahl also noted that leaking natural gas can pose a threat to urban trees, which was confirmed by a 2020 study in Massachusetts. If Missouri regulators won’t take up her proposal, she plans to take her ideas to local governments. 

Von Fischer, of Colorado State, agrees that the leaks should not be ignored. 

“There gets to be a logical fallacy that someone else’s leaks are bigger than mine, therefore I don’t have to do anything about it,” he said. “There is no one source of … climate change. Climate change is death by a thousand cuts. Every dial in front of us needs to be turned down.”

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.