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Efforts to repair natural gas leaks aren't reducing methane emissions in Boston area, study finds

The Boston skyline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Boston skyline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 1 year old.

An eight-year study by Boston-area researchers finds more methane is leaking into the air in and around the city from the burning of natural gas than previously thought.

According to the study from scientists at Harvard and Boston University, the emissions are six times higher than the state's estimates.

The state's figures come from readings taken at ground level and multiplied out to account for all of the elements of the natural gas system infrastructure, while the researchers used a different method: measurements taken from spectrometers positioned on buildings in Boston and outside of the city.

They measured methane emissions from 2012 to 2020. During that time, the state passed laws to reduce natural gas leaks. But, according to the researchers, even though utility companies are repairing leaks, the work hasn't been enough to reduce methane emissions.

"I think the state is going to need to continue to address pipeline leaks, but also put more emphasis on leaks in buildings and homes, leaks from appliances and things that aren't really getting a lot of attention right now," said the study's lead author, Maryann Sargent of Harvard.

The city of Boston's environment and energy chief, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, called the study's data sobering.

"Even though we have taken efforts [to reduce gas leaks], they're not making the impact that we hoped for," White-Hammond said. "If we're not clear about the scope of the problem, then we're going to undershoot on the solution."

Both White-Hammond and Sargent said the study illustrates the need to transition to greener energy and electric heat as soon as possible. Low-income families and communities will need financial help to make that switch, White-Hammond said.

Sargent spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins.

This segment aired on October 25, 2021.


Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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