Infrastructure protectionFinding and fixing natural gas leaks quickly, economically

Published 11 June 2019

From production to consumption, natural gas leaks claim lives, damage the climate and waste money. Researchers are working on better ways to find and fix gas leaks quickly and inexpensively from one end of the system to the other.

As it flows through pipelines from wells to stovetops, natural gas is prone to leaking, threatening not only human safety and health but also the health of the planet.

Over the past 10 years, natural gas leaks and explosions in U.S. residential and commercial neighborhoods have killed 73 people, injured 412 others and caused more than $500 million in property damage. Gas leaks and other emissions throughout the industry emit a third of all human-made methane, a greenhouse gas 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Researchers at Stanford and elsewhere are looking for fast and affordable ways of detecting leaks throughout the natural gas supply chain in an effort to reduce damage and save lives.

“While a large portion of methane in the atmosphere comes from agriculture and livestock, natural gas leaks are found throughout the gas distribution system,” said Stanford professor of geophysics Mark Zoback, director of the Natural Gas Initiative, which funds much of the work at Stanford tracking down and mitigating leaks.

When burned to produce electricity, natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour that coal does, as well as less sulfur and nitrogen oxides, making it a tempting alternative to coal.

Stanford notes, though, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the oil and gas industry emitted approximately 8 million metric tons of methane in 2016 – the equivalent of emissions from 43 million cars in a year. A 2014 study by Adam Brandt, an associate professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford, found that such leaks can negate some but not all of the climate benefit of switching from coal to natural gas, as some experts, including Zoback, have advocated.

“Most gas leakage is associated with a relatively small number of large sources. We’ve got to find and fix the biggest leaks if we want to build a safer, cheaper and less harmful system,” Zoback said.

Consumer safety and health
When leaks happen close to urban and residential areas they can cause fires and explosions and pose some of the greatest threats to human safety, in addition to climate effects. Among those working to find these types of leaks are Stanford’s Rob Jackson, who is also a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energyand the Woods Institute for the Environment, and private-sector scientist Robert Ackley, president of Gas Safety USA, a Massachusetts leak-monitoring firm.

The two have cruised through urban