IPCC scientist argues leaky pipes contribute to climate change

Most people are aware that carbon dioxide is dangerous. However, a more potent greenhouse gas, methane, will have a more immediate effect if old underground pipes aren’t updated, argued Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in a lecture Thursday evening. (Distraction Limited/Flickr)

Most people are aware that carbon dioxide is dangerous. However, a more potent greenhouse gas, methane, will have a more immediate effect if old underground pipes aren’t updated, argued Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in a lecture Thursday evening.

These pipes can be found in many parts of the country and are used to transport methane-rich natural gas, Hamburg said, but they were built to transport liquid, not gas. As a result, the pipes leak and methane is released into the atmosphere, he said.

“A lot of the operators in the situations are not leaking, but some are and we need to know why and where,” Hamburg said, referring to a study he conducted to measure the methane emissions of old pipes used by natural gas companies across the country. “13 percent of the devices accounted for 88 percent of the emissions.”

Because of a new revolution in hydraulic fracturing, which pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground for natural gas extraction, the use of natural gas has increased, Hamburg said.  Scientists are determining how to minimize the environmental impacts of methane emissions in transporting the fuel.

While carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere longer and has longer-lasting effects on climate change, Hamburg said, those effects can only be measured over 100-year time scales.

“But what about the next 20 years?” he asked.

Methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is not as long-lived, but traps 84 times more heat, Hamburg said, making it a big issue in the next few decades.

With 24 published papers and over 100 scientists, Hamburg said he took action on methane emissions because he believed the government would have acted too slow. He was able to raise $12 million for 16 nationwide studies, he said.

“I didn't want to wait 10 years. A lot of damage would happen in 10 years,” Hamburg said. “We needed to give the answers and we needed to make sure we understood what needed to happen.”

His studies show that places with more government regulation on methane emissions had significantly fewer emissions than places without regulation. He said he hopes the studies mobilize the government and natural gas companies to replace old pipes and maximize the amount of natural gas that is actually being used to meet human need.

Fossil fuels, like carbon dioxide and methane, continue to spew into the atmosphere from many sources, including oil, gas and coal powered plants. Switching from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy, like solar and wind, would take time, Hamburg said, but natural gas is an important stepping-stone in the transition as long as pipes are updated.

Students say that the world’s energy future is important, but scientists and governments should focus on reducing environmental impact.

“I’m excited that people are looking for solutions,” Katherine Roque, a third semester music education major, said.  “We can be more efficient and I like that [Hamburg] admitted that we’re not there yet.”

Other students said the United States’ contribution to environmental problems is especially alarming.

“I used to live in Brazil,” Barbara Clayton, third semester graphic design major, said. “The technology in the U.S. is so much better, but the use of energy is so inefficient.”

Energy efficiency can significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The history of energy use began with animal power and wood, Hamburg said, but then changed into more compact energy sources like coal, oil and gas, which provided more energy per molecule of carbon and allowed people to drive cars."We have to remember there have been massive transitions.” Hamburg said. “The world you have grown up in doesn't look anything like the world before or the world to be.”


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu