Baltimore’s natural gas system is increasingly leaky, raising concerns about safety and global warming

More and more natural gas has been leaking out of aged pipes in and around Baltimore in recent years, likely diminishing the fossil fuel’s relative Earth-friendliness and creating hazards that can lead to explosions like one that devastated a Columbia building last month.

Leaks are so frequent that nearly two dozen of them are discovered each day, on average, according to data the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. reports to federal authorities. The number of leaks increased by 75 percent from 2009 to 2016 — amid what officials called a “dramatic” increase in the failure of pipe joints dating from the 1950s and 1960s.


Beyond the immediate safety concerns, the leaks contribute to the greenhouse effect that has been warming the planet for decades. And new research suggests more natural gas from Baltimore and other older cities is reaching the atmosphere than previously thought.

The leaks won’t be stopped anytime soon. In the Baltimore area, BGE needs to replace thousands of miles of obsolete pipes that already could be leaking. Though hundreds of workers are assigned to the task, at the rate BGE is going, the work will take at least two decades.


“This leaking methane has a huge impact in the atmosphere, and it’s not good for consumers,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. On top of the contributions to global warming, he said, “it’s a resource lost. It’s inefficient.”

Nearly 680,000 Baltimore-area residents and businesses use natural gas to heat homes, buildings and water or to cook on stovetops, and that number has grown 3.5% over the past five years. Surging supplies of the fuel being piped across the country from fracked wells in Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere have helped drive natural gas prices down.

Natural gas is used to produce almost one-quarter of the electricity in the United States. In Maryland, it heats about half of homes.

But as the infrastructure carrying that fuel has aged, leaks have increased. BGE is the nation’s oldest gas utility, tracing its roots to the establishment of the Gas Light Co. of Baltimore, which lit its first streetlamp in 1817.

In BGE’s service territory, which for natural gas includes the entire Baltimore metropolitan region and Cecil County, more than 8,200 gas leaks were discovered in 2017 and again in 2018, according to data the utility provides to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. BGE’s reported gas leaks peaked at more than 9,600 in 2016, up from 5,500 leaks in 2009.

Chris Burton, BGE’s vice president for gas distribution, attributed the “dramatic increase” to what he called “accelerating failure" of ¾-inch gas delivery pipes in suburban Baltimore installed before the 1970s. It’s a problem in many older cities and suburbs, he said.

Because many of those leaks are occurring in residential areas, the number considered “hazardous” by the federal pipeline regulators also has grown.

BGE reported more than 3,600 leaks last year that had the potential of creating dangerous buildups of gas or were in or around homes. Any leak in residential areas is treated as potentially hazardous, Burton said.

He said the utility acts quickly to address such leaks, responding within an hour to virtually all calls reporting a gas odor — as many as 30,000 each year.

That sort of response — and the danger leaks can present — were both displayed by an explosion Aug. 25 at a Columbia office building and shopping center. A Social Security Administration worker reported a gas odor while at work early on a Sunday morning, and first responders cleared the building 30 minutes before the leak caused an explosion.

BGE crews have not yet been able to determine what caused the leak or precisely where it came from, spokesman Aaron Koos said. They still are waiting for some structural assessment and demolition to be completed before they can access equipment that needs to be inspected as part of the investigation, Koos said.

Tracing leaks can be a difficult task. As gas seeps out of aged joints or tiny cracks underground, it floats upward by the path of least resistance, like a stream trickling downhill. If there is no opening for it to escape into the air, it can build up beneath sidewalks, around water meters or in storm drains.


For concerned residents, it can be a frustrating experience. Aaron McCrady said a crawl space beneath his Annapolis kitchen repeatedly filled with gas over six months before BGE officials were able to locate and stop the leaks.

McCrady, who works in clean energy investment, said he worries there isn’t enough pressure on utilities to replace older pipes. They are largely made of cast iron and steel, with some of the oldest joints secured with jute, a vegetable fiber.

“A company has a system designed for 50 years; the longer they can stretch it, the more money they make,” he said.

Burton said that isn’t true. He said BGE is proactively replacing about 50 miles of old pipes each year under the Maryland Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement program, or STRIDE, imposed by state law in 2013. About 1,100 miles of BGE’s 7,500 miles of gas pipes are made of old cast iron that needs to be replaced.

The utility uses sensors, carried by truck and by hand, to sniff out leaks across its service territory, he said. It employs 600 people, plus 600 contractors, to do the work. Koos said that requires continuous recruiting and training because so many other utilities are performing similar work.

After the repeated problems at McCrady’s home, BGE advanced an already planned project to replace the cast iron pipes in his neighborhood with plastic, Burton said.

“Our STRIDE projects really try to target neighborhoods with the worst-performing infrastructure,” Burton said.

Tidwell said the climate action group is working on a legislative proposal that would force utilities to more aggressively replace old infrastructure. BGE charges residential customers 74 cents a month to put toward infrastructure upgrades through the STRIDE program, spending $139 million on such work in 2018.

Gas utilities are authorized to charge residential customers up to $2 a month for STRIDE work. Jason Stanek, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, said Baltimore’s pipes can be expected to continue to leak for the near future, because conducting repairs much faster could be too expensive for customers to bear.

“To basically rip up the entire city and replace these pipelines, that would ensure our leak rate would decrease substantially, but the question is at what cost?” Stanek said.


BGE pitched its latest $963 million, five-year plan for gas infrastructure upgrades as accelerated while being financially prudent. It got support from firefighters across the state who said the work is vital for preventing deadly explosions like those that have occurred in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere.


Some question whether enough is being done.

"Utilities are pocketing money, but not acting quickly enough,” Tidwell said. “We want them to address not only the most dangerous leaks but also the most voluminous leaks.”

For environmentalists, the leaks are a growing concern because they suggest natural gas might be worse for the environment than is assumed. Natural gas has been seen as a good alternative to coal and other fossil fuels because burning it produces significantly less carbon dioxide and air pollution. But any gas that escapes in leaks is also a contributor to global warming.

When it reaches the atmosphere, the methane that makes up as much as 90% of natural gas fuel traps more heat than carbon does, though methane doesn’t linger for as long before moving out into space.

Research published in the journal Geophysical Letters in July shows that, at least over Baltimore and five other Northeast cities, more methane is escaping into the skies than has been estimated. After comparing data from flights upwind and downwind of the cities, scientists found levels of methane were twice as high as a methane emissions estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientists at the University of Michigan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who led the study said the research doesn’t explain the sources of the methane, whether from leaky pipes or household appliances. They said their methods account for methane emitted from landfills, and that their observations point to problems with the natural gas energy system.

The gas industry said the study does not support any broad conclusions about methane emissions across the country. Jake Rubin, a spokesman for the American Gas Association, said utilities’ efforts to upgrade pipes and promote safety has contributed significantly to declines in natural gas emissions nationally.

Eric Kort, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who helped lead the study that measured methane over Baltimore, said leaks mean that while natural gas burns relatively clean, it could have a greater environmental footprint than previously thought.

“If we choose not to act or do anything,” Kort said, “it does mean the impact of using natural gas is greater than it needs to be.”

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