RICHMOND, Va.—Guided by a fistful of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Lee Williams sniffed the smell of rotten eggs on Grove Avenue earlier this month, took out a methane tracking device and registered a “100 percent” reading, meaning a single lit match could ignite a blaze on the street.
She and other volunteers with the community organization Beyond Methane RVA have discovered 25 gas leaks severe enough to catch fire with a spark, Williams said, and only two of them have been fixed. The pipeline on Grove Avenue is not scheduled to be repaired, she said, until sometime between December 2023 to January 2024.
With over 900 gas leaks confirmed via FOIA requests, Beyond Methane RVA has found 150 of them using their two Sensit Methane Gas detector monitors. Richmond Gas Works, the supplier of natural gas in the Greater Richmond region, takes 245 days on average to repair public gas pipelines, according to the FOIA documents and calculations by Beyond Methane RVA.
When the detector measures a 100 percent reading at the “lower explosive limit,” the lowest concentration of gas that would burn, Beyond Methane RVA informs the Richmond City Council and the Richmond Gas Works—and calls 911.
Compared to carbon dioxide, the primary cause of climate change, which remains in the atmosphere for centuries, methane lasts for only eight to nine years. But the gas—the main component of natural gas—traps far more heat than CO2. Over a 20-year period, methane holds about 80 times more heat, making it the second leading cause of global warming. It also contributes to ozone pollution at ground level and can cause breathing maladies and other health problems.
“If you stop putting it in the air, it goes away and so that is our best chance to fight climate change,” said Williams, a retired nurse.
Shifting from natural gas to renewable energy helps reduce greenhouse emissions at a faster rate and supports the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Beyond Methane RVA was born after a climate emergency resolution was unanimously passed by Richmond City Council in September 2021. Over the city’s past two budget cycles, the community organization has encouraged the City Council to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, solar panels and batteries, said Glen Besa, a member of Beyond Methane RVA.
“We’ve been disappointed with the level of commitment from the city in terms of taking action on climate change, generally and particularly with respect to gas,” Besa said.
Unable to learn how the city-owned Richmond Gas Works was accounting for gas lost to leaks, the community organization submitted its FOIA requests and discovered in early March 2023 the utility knew about hundreds of leaks in its service region.
Richmond Gas Works, a division of the city’s Department of Public Utilities, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Although Richmond Gas Works advertises natural gas as the “cleaner” fossil fuel compared to coal, research shows that the climate benefits from natural gas power plants compared to the newest and most efficient coal plants only when leakage remains below 3.2 percent from a gas well and the pipeline that delivers it to a power plant. Richmond gas had a loss rate of gas by 9.1 percent in 2022, according to the FOIA documents obtained by Beyond Methane RVA.
FOIA records also showed two-thirds of the gas leaks are occuring in suburban counties served by Richmond Gas Works, meaning residents in those areas are responsible for paying for the costs of lost gas, Beyond Methane RVA volunteer Kevin Cianfarini wrote in an email to Inside Climate News.
“We’re all essentially shareholders of a gas utility that’s struggling financially just by way of living in Richmond,” Cianfarini wrote. “In contrast, the failure of an investor-owned utility would impose financial harm on investors, not customers and residents.”
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In 2022, ratepayers had to pay $16 million for Richmond Gas Works’ lost gas, FOIA records and calculations by Beyond Methane RVA showed. Mckenna Dubar, an energy justice organizer at the Sierra Club, said lower income communities having to rely on Richmond Gas Works will struggle the most financially to pay for the gas leaks.
Cianfarini said in a webinar that Richmond Gas Works is expecting to expand its supply throughout Greater Richmond, including Goochland County.
Nationally, 548,000 metric tons of methane leaked from fossil fuel distribution pipelines in 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The near-term climate impact of all gas leaks nationwide is equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 10 million cars or 12 coal-fired power plants, as calculated by EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator.
Cianfarini said the Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress last year, provides local governments with incentives to invest in renewable energy.
“This is a good opportunity for RVA to backfill lost revenue from gas with clean energy assets,” Cianfarini wrote.
Education on rising utility bills and rising greenhouse gas emissions can produce greater local support for a transition to renewable energy produced by wind and solar, Dunbar said, adding that she hopes growing support for renewables will drive Richmond’s City Council to act on the climate promises it made in the September 2021 resolution.
<div class="post-author-bio"> <div class="image-holder"> <img width="300" height="300" src="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/HEADSHOT-2-300x300.jpeg" class="attachment-thumbnail-medium-square size-thumbnail-medium-square" alt="Ananya Chetia" decoding="async" srcset="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/HEADSHOT-2-300x300.jpeg 300w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/HEADSHOT-2-150x150.jpeg 150w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/HEADSHOT-2-64x64.jpeg 64w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/HEADSHOT-2-600x600.jpeg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px"> </div> <!-- /.image-holder --> <div class="content"> <h3 class="author-name"> <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/profile/ananya-chetia/"> Ananya Chetia </a> </h3> <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Fellow</h4> Ananya Chetia is a rising senior at the University of Richmond majoring in journalism with a double minor in English and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Ananya serves as an executive editor for her college newspaper and was a spring intern for Richmond Magazine, a lifestyle magazine in Richmond, Virginia. Before coming to study in the United States, Ananya lived in an oil compound in Saudi Arabia. Her upbringing made her think about how fossil fuels affect the planet and how different communities are more harmed than others by environmental changes. Ananya looks forward to joining an ambitious team of journalists asking the same questions that she has about climate change, global warming and how communities work to fight against or further harm the environment. </div> <!-- /.bio --> </div> <!-- /.post-author-bio -->