Knock. Knock. Who’s there? When you open the door, there’s a man in a business suit carrying a thin, black briefcase.
“Hello,” he says, smiling. “I’m here to tell you about a wonderful way to bring energy into your home and to give you the opportunity to become one of our subscribers. Once we set you up, you can use the energy we provide to heat your home, cook your meals, and heat your water for bathing and laundering. It’s cheaper than the electricity you may now be using to do these things, and it’s also more energy efficient, since you would be using the heat directly instead of using the energy after it has been converted into electricity and then back into heat in your home.”
“How would this work?” you ask.
“It’s all very simple,” he replies. “We’ll be providing principally methane to you. Methane is a naturally occurring colorless, odorless gas in which each molecule consists of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. We find it in the ground and then supply it to your home through our network of buried pipes. In fact, when you join our other customers, you’ll be tapping into a fully integrated system of pipelines that, as of last year, was 2.28 million miles long.”
“Wow!” you exclaim, “Someone has certainly done a lot of digging. But, when you connect millions of miles of gas pipes, aren’t there leaks at the joints or maybe in old pipes?”
“Ah. Well I won’t lie to you. A lot of the network is aging, and leaks are a constant challenge. Leaks are expensive to repair, and we must charge the customers to have the resources to fix them. But we can only charge customers what the state utility commission allows. There’s never enough money to fix all of the leaks, so we fix the really big ones and any that are close to occupied buildings, and we try to keep track of the others as we learn about them.”
“But,” you say, “gas is used in warfare and executions to kill people. It can also fuel explosions, and doesn’t it contribute to global warming?”
“Okay, yes,” the salesman replies, “the gas in people’s homes prior to about 1945 contained carbon monoxide, and that is lethal. but the natural gas we supply today isn’t poisonous. We can breathe it. The only way it can be harmful for us is if there’s a lot of it trapped in a confined space. In that case, all that happens is that it pushes out any oxygen that was in the space. And it won’t asphyxiate you by accident because we flavor the gas with mercaptan to give it a rotten egg smell before distributing it to your home.”
“Right,” you remember. “so if you stick your head in an oven to commit suicide, it’s no longer breathing the gas that does the trick; instead, you suffocate from lack of oxygen, if you can stand breathing rotten eggs for long enough for it to work. That’s probably not going to happen by accident. But you’re telling me that the bad smell is only added to the gas at the distribution end of its long journey from the well to my home, so leaks in the gathering and transmission parts of the network would not be detectable by the smell. And what about explosions?”
The salesman digs into his briefcase and pulls out a piece of paper with figures on it. “In this country, natural gas accounts for only about 17 fatalities per year, and most of those are from asphyxiation, not explosions. Compare that with fatalities from auto accidents: more than 42,000 in 2020. The explosions that occur make sensational news stories, so people tend to think they happen more frequently than they do. Even so, we do average about 286 serious natural gas explosions per year. A gas explosion would be considered serious if it causes a death or severe injury or does more than $50,000 worth of property damage.”
“Yes. I’d certainly consider that serious. I’m sure that doesn’t make your job any easier. So, what can you tell me about the impact of all those gas leaks on climate change?”
He comes up with another piece of paper with numbers. “Although the main contributor to global warming is carbon dioxide, and we produce vast amounts of that, I’m sorry to say that methane is about 28 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. But it’s not so bad as it sounds at first. There are lots of natural sources of methane gas. These include any situation in which organic material is decomposing or being digested. So, leaks from our pipelines are probably not huge contributors. Also, whereas carbon dioxide that has entered the atmosphere is persistent and can continue contributing to global warming for a thousand years, methane is continually being broken down by natural processes and is gone in a little more than a decade.”
“But,” you say, “electricity can be generated by clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind which will never run out. Natural gas is a fossil fuel and supplies will decline some day driving prices way up. Even though methane can be generated from renewable sources also such as landfills, garbage, and biomass and delivered thru the same pipeline system, these sources are limited compared to solar, wind, tides, and geothermal.”
The salesman smiles and holds out a business card. “It’s been nice chatting with you. Please give me a call if you have any other questions about our service.”
Jim Parsons and his wife Celeste are often seen cycling around the county on their purple tandem bicycle with the American flag flying from the back.