HEET Data in Peer-Reviewed Scientific Journal

May 25, 2021

Repairing gas leaks is a strategy for near-term climate action in Massachusetts. Natural gas leaks account for as much as 10% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. A new study in Environmental Science & Technology, led by Dr. Morgan Edwards, set out to determine the effectiveness of this strategy. 

The researchers mapped utility-reported leak and repair data for Massachusetts. They found almost 10,000 locations where a leak was reported after a repair took place, representing a 20% failure rate—or an 80% success rate. The team confirmed their findings by directly measuring a sample of high-emitting leaks. These measurements found that over half of repairs did not fully eliminate all on-site emissions for the largest leaks. 

These findings suggest that more efficient and improved leak repair strategies coupled with an accelerated transition off gas can best help states meet climate goals. 

We can improve the effectiveness of repairs. We can increase the effectiveness of pipeline repairs by prioritizing the largest leaks and by improving repair outcomes. Massachusetts has already enacted a first-in-the-nation policy to prioritize the repair of large volume leaks. Luckily, newly proposed legislation incentivizes advanced systemic repair technologies to improve repair outcomes that extend the life of the existing infrastructure.

Repair is still more cost-effective than replacement. Despite the failure rates uncovered in this research, the authors found that repairing gas leaks is still more cost-effective than pipeline replacement. “New pipelines are still more expensive and lock our energy system into high-carbon infrastructure,” notes Dr. Morgan Edwards, the lead author on the study. 

Repair failures highlight benefits of energy transitions. “Repairing gas leaks was already a near-term climate solution,” notes Dr. Morgan Edwards, the lead author on the study. “Now that we have a fuller understanding of the costs of repair, including repair failures, the net benefits of transitioning off gas are even greater.” In Massachusetts gas utilities have already begun, with the support of state agencies and climate advocates, to invest in installations of networked geothermal, our innovative non-emitting replacement for gas infrastructure.

Data transparency enables smarter policy. These findings highlight the importance of data transparency for managing our energy systems and tracking progress on state and local climate action. “This analysis was only possible because utilities report leaks and repairs publicly in Massachusetts,” remarks Edwards. “This isn’t the case in many other states with similarly old and leak-prone pipelines.”

“I love when science and data drive policy,” says Zeyneb Magavi, Co-Executive Director of HEET, a collaborating nonprofit. “Research like this gives us the information needed to more efficiently triage older leaking infrastructure and encourages us to more rapidly modernize our energy system, building better infrastructure for a better future.”

Edwards is an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. In addition to Edwards, the research team includes Dr. Amanda Giang (University of British Columbia), and Dr. Gregg Macey (Brooklyn Law School). They began this work with HEET while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.