Behind the Scenes of Methane Mapping: An Interview with Bob Ackley, Natural Gas Expert and HEET Volunteer

July 7, 2014

The Squeaky Leaks program is on the move!  Bob Ackley, natural gas leak mapping guru and HEET volunteer, has started the process of mapping Cambridge to help us better understand where the leaks are in our community.  Bob recently sat down with HEET for an interview, to share his experience and how this important work impacts the community.  

Q: How long have you been mapping methane and what motivated you to start the work in the first place?

Methane is the primary compound in natural gas and it is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas.  While most plans to slow down climate change have focused on reducing carbon dioxide emission, methane has a much higher global warming potential after it is emitted.

I have been doing methane gas leak compliance work for utilities for 30 years and I left the industry 6 years ago to help protect trees and human health.  Natural gas leaks kill trees slowly, sometimes taking as long as 5 to 10 years. As a utility contractor, I am trained to look for dying vegetation as a sign for natural gas leaks. Communities are losing millions of         dollars  in trees (the loss comes from time and money spent on tree care, tree removal, and planting).  This is a huge issue that is easily quantifiable.  

Q: Can you run us through the mapping process and the equipment you use?

I use CRDS Spectrometer equipment, working in coordination with Boston University Professor Nathan Phillips while doing tree work in Newton.  Not many people know what is going on in the industry so I have been working with researchers to determine what exactly is going on.  The CRDS Spectrometer measures methane in ppb's, or parts per billion. It is capable of recording the time, the level of methane, and its precise location with a GPS coordinate.  Then we are able to plot the data on Google Earth.  I do my work usually on the road and then investigate the details on foot.

Q: Through the course of your work, have you been surprised by what you have found?

I am not surprised by the data since I have been doing this kind of work for 35 as a contractor for the utilities doing leak detection. The general public is not aware of this issue.  Using a $5,000 piece of equipment, I can detect the leaks, but the utilities already know where all of the leaks are.  The industry is not thrilled about the public seeing this stuff.  

Q: What should citizens know about the methane pipe infrastructure under their urban landscape?

The public should know that gas leaks are hazardous for both trees and human beings. Unfortunately, there are no studies yet that have concluded whether breathing-in methane is harmful.  Natural gas slowly kills vegetation: grass, trees, and shrubs.  The real dangers, however, are from underground leak explosions, such as manhole explosions. This is especially concerning because the utilities do not respond to leaks the way they should.  Even more worrisome is that pipeline leaks inside peoples’ homes go un-repaired and people are breathing in methane gas.  There are not a lot of avenues for repairs for small level leaks, especially in low-income housing, rentals, and multi-family buildings.  It’s expensive to fix the leaks and it costs money to bring in a licensed plumber so naturally households do not want to pay the cost on their own.  Getting people involved is very difficult!

Q: Can you share some more about the work you are doing for the Squeaky Leaks project?

I am running the CRDS spectrometer and mapping the leaks in the city of Cambridge.  This includes investigating leaks, but it will often take more time and effort to identify the sources of those emissions.  It’s one thing to drive around to map the leaks, but then you need to get out of the car to investigate them. I am also working with other researches to quantify the amount of gas being wasted.  

Q: In closing, what would you like share with HEET friends?

If you smell gas, call the fire department and the utility company immediately to investigate it.  Even If someone says it is okay to smell natural gas, you should still demand to have it fixed.  Do not let them create a false sense of security.  It is very important to continue to call your leak in if it has not yet been fixed. It could take up to an hour for the gas company to show-up and investigate the leak.  If you have a bad gas leak from cracked cast iron main or third party damage, this could be a hazardous situation where a manhole could blow, buildings could be damaged, and lives could be lost.