Gas explosions show how dangerous the fuel is

It’s time to break our addiction to fossil fuels

THE CONSERVATION LAW FOUNDATION in late September held a meeting in Lawrence to highlight the work of our community partners there. Just as these groups began their presentations, natural gas-fueled explosions and fires began to erupt in South Lawrence and the neighboring towns of Andover and North Andover. Amidst the ensuing chaos, one person was killed and at least 25 others injured. Thousands were forced to evacuate, while dozens of buildings were destroyed and scores more damaged. Had the tragedy happened later in the day, with families home from work and school, the toll would have been even more horrific.

At that moment, I was on the other side of the country, attending the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Convened by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the summit brought together political leaders and experts from around the country and the world to reaffirm their commitment to the Paris Climate accord. The collective spirit of the summit was heartening.

But the juxtaposition of the summit and the Merrimack Valley explosions proved deeply instructive in less-than-heartening ways. Despite years of advocacy on the public health, safety, and climate risks posed by an aging and vulnerable natural gas distribution system, initiated by CLF and led now at the grassroots level by Mothers Out Front, reliance on natural gas continues to put New England families and businesses at risk. Despite the urgency of phasing out fossil fuel use to avert climate catastrophe, the explosions highlighted how entangled our daily lives and our very safety are in natural gas and other fossil fuel infrastructure.

Natural gas is inherently dangerous. The explosions in the Merrimack Valley are just the latest example of the disasters that can result from our dependence on this hazardous fossil fuel, with less severe incidents in Fitchburg, Springfield, and Gloucester just in the last 10 years. The sobering reality is that there are accidents waiting to happen under our streets throughout the state. Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas infrastructure in the country, with some equipment dating back as far as the Civil War.

While we don’t yet know the cause of this latest incident, we are all too aware that thousands of miles of pipes are chronically prone to leaks, which is a recipe for disaster, pose a hazard to our health, and cost Massachusetts gas customers tens of millions of dollars every year as gas companies charge the end consumer for gas that they leak out of their pipelines.  Despite the risks, the Trump administration is proposing to weaken its pipeline safety inspection requirements in populated areas.

Natural gas is marketed as a “clean” fuel, but it is nothing of the sort. Natural gas is up to 95 percent methane, a greenhouse gas that is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100-year time frame. As a consequence, natural gas delivers a powerful one-two punch of climate damage, releasing harmful carbon dioxide when combusted in your furnace or in a power plant, and even more harmful methane when it’s leaked directly into the air from a pipeline.

Massachusetts recently instituted a groundbreaking measure to curb carbon emissions from our electricity sector by requiring our power generators to decrease their emissions annually consistent with the best climate science. As clean energy sources like wind and solar meet increasingly more of the power needs of New Englanders, it’s time we made the shift away from gas in our homes and businesses and demand clean, cost-effective ,and safe alternatives such as electric heat pumps, water heaters, and highly efficient appliances.

The Global Climate Action Summit reminded us of the progress that has been made in combatting climate change and moving away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the tragedy in the Merrimack Valley is a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Meet the Author
It is time for companies, policymakers, and regulators to catch up with science and reality. We need to solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels. Transitioning away from natural gas will not be an easy task, but as the events of last week have shown, it is essential that we begin to ditch gas immediately.

Bradley Campbell is president of the Conservation Law Foundation.