On Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a stage of emergency in the affluent Porter Ranch neighborhood in Los Angeles due to a gas leak spewing about 12 tons of methane per day. The leak began in October.
The LA gas leak provides another cautionary tale for those who want the United States to convert our coal fired power plant fleet to natural gas under the Clean Power Plan. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon.
Natural gas pipe infrastructure in this country is old. A lot of the pipes, production facilities and infrastructure needed to supply natural gas to homes and businesses already have slow leaks. One study estimated methane emissions in Manhattan at 8.6 billion cubic feet per year. Leak detection technology shows the methane leaks in Manhattan track the pipes running under the city.
The enormous leak in Los Angeles is not the first dramatic sign of trouble with natural gas infrastructure in the United States. In New York, gas explosions in East Harlem and the Borough Park section of Brooklyn caused 10 deaths and total destruction of two buildings.
Evidence of perils from climate change clearly dictate we need to take action to curb greenhouse gases. The dramatic drought, floods and fires suffered throughout the country this holiday season give ample examples of how climate change causes human suffering.
Reducing carbon emissions from power plants is an important step in slowing climate change. Replacing carbon emissions with methane emissions is not, however, a step forward.
The Clean Power Plan calls on states to submit a plan for conversion away from coal fired power plants. States have flexibility in how to replace coal when designing their respective plans. If the state does not propose a plan, then the plan set by US EPA (the so called Federal Plan) will apply. EPA drafted a proposed Federal Plan that is open for public comment until Jan. 21. State plans need to be carefully and thoughtfully drafted.
Replacing coal with natural gas means the country will increase fracking.
It is imperative that states submit plans to comply with the Clean Power Plan that use energy consumer conservation efforts and incentives to expand solar power on buildings as a means to reduce carbon. By law, EPA is not allowed to include consumer conservation efforts and incentives to expand solar power as a means to reduce carbon emissions.
So states that do not submit a plan and rely on the Federal Plan will not be able to use consumer conservation efforts and incentives to expand solar power in buildings as part of their carbon emissions reduction plan. States relying on the Federal Plan are likely to use conversion to natural gas as means to reduce carbon emissions - which again means increased need to frack for natural gas.
More use of natural gas without efforts to upgrade infrastructure will result in more tragic leaks and explosions.
As the country moves to reduce our carbon footprint, we need to create incentives to use renewable energy sources, upgrade existing natural gas infrastructure so gas used is safe and avoid increased reliance on fracking.
Elizabeth Glass Geltman is the author of 17 books on environmental and natural resources policy and is an associate professor and program director for Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health and the Urban School of Public Health at Hunter College. Geltman serves as the Secretary of the Environment Section of the American Public Health Association. Read more at FrackingProf.com