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Study Finds Higher Density of Gas Leaks Where People of Color Live

Places with higher shares of people of color and lower incomes experienced, on average, a greater density of dangerous methane leaks from local pipeline systems.

U.S. Oil Industry Prioritizes Output Over Debt
Photographer: Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

A new study found a greater density of dangerous leaks from gas pipelines in US urban areas where there’s a higher proportion of people of color, raising questions about the unequal distribution of risks that comes with using the highly combustible fuel for energy.

The researchers strapped devices onto Google Street View cars to detect leaks of methane — the main component of natural gas — and combined that information with census data to see if the releases correlated with factors such as race, income and English-language fluency. They found that, on average, across thirteen US urban metro areas, neighborhoods with higher percentages of minorities and lower earnings experienced a greater density of leaks.

Older pipelines have a greater tendency to leak but many factors can contribute to infrastructure disparities including historical inequalities, lack of leak reporting by residents and insufficient regulation, the scientists wrote in a paper published Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology. They relied on methane data collected between 2014 and 2018.

“This data offers a way forward to address how public utilities are maintained and to ensure the services they offer are equitable,” said Joe von Fischer, one of the authors and a professor at Colorado State University. “It allows for transparency and public accountability.”

The paper didn’t identify utilities that provide gas distribution services in the 13 metro areas studied; the authors provided the information separately. Four of the areas were excluded from individual analysis because there weren’t enough leaks detected, although the information gathered there was included in the overall study that covered areas home to 4.5 million people. In eight of the remaining nine metro areas, the authors estimated that leak density increased with a rise in the share of people of color, although the magnitude of the association and overall leaks per mile surveyed varied.