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Our Leaky Gas Infrastructure

We’re fans of good longform writing here at Via Meadia. We’re also always on the lookout for experiments in how to sustainably fund online journalism. As such we’ve been keeping our eye on an interesting little startup called Matter. Their idea is simple: they publish magazine-length reported pieces and charge readers $0.99 per article. They also provide a $0.99/month subscription option which gives you some neat extras, like access to everything they publish formatted as an ebook, and a means of communicating with editors about story ideas.

This month’s feature might be of interest to VM readers. It describes the unlikely partnership between a libertarian whistleblower climate skeptic and a leading climate scientist as they try to document how a creaky, crumbling infrastructure in US cities may undermine natural gas’s potential for being a cleaner alternative to coal. It’s a great story suffused with fascinating details like these:

When [climate scientist Nathan Phillips] looked at public data on leaks, what he found astounded him. The US government’s Energy Information Agency logs “lost and unaccounted for” gas, which it defines as the difference between the amount of gas that utilities buy from wholesalers and that which they sell to users. In Massachusetts alone, over 140 million cubic metres of gas was lost every year. Nationwide, the figure was over 8 billion cubic metres—equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 30 coal plants. The American Gas Association, which represents gas utilities, claimed the primary cause of the losses was “meter uncertainty”. In other words, that the lost gas was actually just a blip in measurement. Phillips wanted to know more: that would have been some blip.

What puzzled Phillips, at first, was why the gas industry did nothing about it. In purely financial terms, the amount of gas lost nationwide had a value of more than three billion dollars. Why would they let so much money leak out of their pipes? The answer, he discovered, was that state regulators allowed the companies to pass on the cost of lost gas to ratepayers. Utilities had little incentive to fix small leaks.

Dig out the change from between your couch cushions and give the whole thing a read. It’s a good way to spend this Sunday afternoon.

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