This story was originally posted by The DC Line online version on Sept. 13, 2022.
It’s in your gas stove. It leaks from service lines leading into houses and apartment buildings. It crisscrosses large regions of the United States through underground pipelines. It has the potential to warm the planet 80 to 85 times more than carbon dioxide does in a 20-year period. It is methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas.
Although carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, methane is more potent, absorbing more energy and causing more heat in a shorter period of time. Like other greenhouse gases, methane increases surface temperatures and worsens ground-level ozone, also known as smog.
That’s why many environmentalists, policymakers and health experts are now calling for fast action on reducing methane pollution to both slow warming of the planet and improve air quality.
Cutting methane emissions by 40% by 2030 could prevent an estimated 180,000 deaths, 540,000 emergency room visits from asthma, and 11,000 hospitalizations of older adults globally each year, according to the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, an organization representing dozens of countries as well as various intergovernmental and non-governmental partners.
One of the most obvious ways to cut down on methane emissions is to switch from natural gas to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The nation’s capital may be at the forefront of this switch – the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 ramped up the use of renewables and aims for the District to be fossil fuel-free by 2032.
It’s a more aggressive timetable than any of the 50 states.
Additionally this summer, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser signed legislation requiring virtually all new construction to be built to a net zero standard by 2026. This act still needs congressional review to become law but requires every new building in the District, except houses less than three stories tall, to consume only as much energy as they produce.
Air pollution poses risks to everyone, not just those with breathing problems
The frightening sound of coughing is Rohan Arora’s persistent memory from childhood. He was in grade school, living in northern Virginia, when he first remembers dashing through his house to get his father’s inhaler to him. It is one of the most basic human instincts: When someone can’t breathe, do something.
“As a little kid, that definitely has an impact on you, you know what I mean?” Arora, 21, said in a recent interview.
His dad would say he had “weak lungs,” but Arora now knows that there is a well-established connection between asthma and air pollution, something his father was exposed to driving to and from DC everyday.
For people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), even short-term exposure to ozone pollution has been linked to worsening of symptoms, increased medication use and more frequent emergency department visits and hospital admissions, according to the American Lung Association. Certain groups within the general population are more vulnerable to air pollution – including the very young and the very old, which in the District includes about one-third of residents.
But everyone is at risk from air pollution, said Dr. Regina Davis Moss, associate executive director of public health policy and practice at the American Public Health Association. “Not only are we all at risk, but environmental exposure can turn anyone from a ‘healthy person’ to a person with a respiratory issue over time,” she said.
While he was still in high school, Arora and his younger sister — inspired by their father’s respiratory issues — launched The Community Check-Up, a national nonprofit that seeks to help people make the connection between climate change and health by improving climate education, engaging youth in their communities and helping children reflect on environmental health injustices.
Arora started calling himself a climate health activist. “Health is imperative to understanding the climate crisis as a whole,” said Arora, now a college graduate who will begin medical school this fall.
It also drove him to testify at a hearing held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last December about proposed regulations to reduce methane emissions from new and existing sources in the oil and gas industry. Stressing the potential impact of methane on his father’s health issues, Arora called for drastic and immediate reductions in its use. “For me and millions of American families, cleaning up methane and other pollutants is personal,” he said.
Arora’s climate activism has focused on youth overall, and particularly young people in communities of color, because they suffer the most from asthma and the impacts of climate change.
These are also the communities that have historically been disenfranchised and had the least involvement in climate change activism, said Davis Moss, who oversees APHA’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity.
“Addressing climate change and health inequities requires transformational change in our systems and in our community,” she said. “It requires a whole approach, top to bottom.”
DC’s “notoriously leaky” gas lines target of action
One area of action for environmental groups interested in reducing methane emissions has been the leaks that occur at every stage in the process of extracting, generating and delivering natural gas. Methane also escapes from underground pipelines delivering fuel. Even measurements taken from street-level utility caps show that methane seeps out — sometimes a lot of it, sometimes for long periods of time, and in cities nationwide.
In DC, two leak investigations in the past year revealed hundreds of leaks. In the “Beyond Gas DC” study, a wide range of citizens, religious groups and the local chapter of the Sierra Club found 388 leaks, 51 of which were measured at a level at which explosions can occur.
The DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) released its own study that agrees with the citizen-led group. Using different equipment, DOEE’s 2021 Fugitive Methane Emission Survey found that 3,346 locations of methane emissions were detected across 713 road miles in DC. In 2019, the study said, DC had a higher percentage of lost gas than any of the 50 states.
That leak rate led the Sierra Club and environmental justice law firm Earthjustice to call the District’s gas distribution network “notoriously leaky” in a study sent to the DC Public Service Commission in March.
The Earthjustice solution is to move DC to full electrification, which senior attorney Susan Stevens Miller says would ultimately be cost-effective. Washington Gas is working on a multi-phased pipe-replacement project, which Miller said will cost $4 billion and won’t be fully paid for until 2084 – “to replace pipes to provide gas that we don’t want to be provided anymore.”
“It makes more sense to move people to electricity simply because the equipment actually ends up being cheaper,” said Miller. “Particularly if you’re using renewables – once you move to solar, you have no fuel costs.”
Washington Gas says its business plan is in line with District goals and is working toward carbon neutrality by 2050. “We take reports and concerns from the community seriously and will continue doing our part to build a clean, low carbon future,” Washington Gas spokesperson Bernie Tylor said in a statement. Residents can report any suspected gas leaks at 844-927-4427.
Act with urgency, advocates say
Leaks come from pipelines as well, yet new ones continue to be proposed. In the last few years, four new pipelines were under consideration in Virginia alone. And methane escaping from underground pipelines does not stop at state boundaries, making leaks a regional issue.
The $8 billion Atlantic Pipeline would have transported gas across 600 miles in Virginia. With court challenges to the unpopular proposal driving up the cost, the energy companies behind it eventually killed the proposal. Quentin Scott, federal campaign director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said his organization is working in the Mid-Atlantic region and with partners across the country to build grassroots support to prevent new pipelines like that one and others.
Environmental advocates and public health experts say that teaching young people how climate change is affecting their health — along with curbing methane emissions now by tackling leaks, reducing natural gas usage and halting construction of new pipelines — will ultimately save lives.
To Rohan Arora, it’s clear that immediate action is necessary.
“To safeguard American health and wellness, it is crucial we act with urgency to reduce methane emissions,” he said.
Jalynn Charity is an 11th grade student at Theodore Roosevelt High School in DC; Joy Li is a 10th grade student at Harrisonburg High School in Harrisonburg, Virginia; and Zioni Moore is a 12th grade student at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s reporting workshop on the impacts of climate change in spring 2022. They worked on this article with DC-based journalism instructor Mary Stapp and Youthcast Media Group’s content and programs director Brie Zeltner.