The Danger of Gas Leaks and What Can Be Done

Published May 24, 2022

Organizer and veteran Yaritza Perez and climate scientist Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto discuss the human impacts of, and science behind, methane pollution and how communities in Florida are fighting back.

In this episode

Colleen, Yaritza, and Juan discuss

  • the science behind methane pollution caused by gas leaks
  • the impact on communities in Florida
  • how fighting for stronger methane rules will clean up communities that have been hardest hit
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:29)
Intro (0:29-2:31)
Interview part 1 (2:31-14:23)
Break (14:23-14:56)
Interview part 2 (14:56-28:11)
Outro (28:11-29:00)


Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: Welcome to the Got Science? podcast, I’m Colleen MacDonald.

Everyone knows what carbon dioxide is, right? It’s emitted when you burn fossil fuels, it’s the major cause of climate change. But in second place is methane, and that’s our topic today.

You probably know methane from the stories you've heard about cows emitting it when they burp, and a large percentage of methane emissions come from agriculture—but the oil and gas sector is also responsible for lots of methane emissions—and the more scientists study these operations, the more methane emissions they find, leaking out up and down the fossil fuel supply chain.

A quick internet search of “methane leak” will show you how common they are. Sometimes a single event can result in a large amount of methane released at once – one recent methane gas leak in Texas was so huge that, according to one estimate, in less than an hour it produced the equivalent of the emissions of 16,000 cars.

But more often, methane emissions are the result of ill-maintained or outdated equipment and careless processes like venting and flaring gas—that’s gas just burned off that’s not even used for fuel. And these are things that can be readily stopped.

That’s why a new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA—called “the methane rule,” is aiming to lessen the irresponsible practices of oil and gas companies that cause this pollution that’s harmful to people and climate.

And that’s where today’s guest Yaritza Perez comes in. She’s an organizer at Ecomadres and Moms Clean Air Force in Florida and she’s been working with the communities hit hardest by the harmful effects of methane. These communities, primarily Latinx, Black, Indigenous, and low-income people, stand to benefit most from EPA's methane rule, and have fought to make it a reality. She is joined by Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto, senior social scientist in climate vulnerability at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Together they explain the effects of methane on the planet and public health--and just how powerful the combination of individuals, communities, and scientific data can be.

Colleen: Yaritza, Juan, welcome to the podcast

Yaritza: Thank you so much for having us

Juan: Hi, thank you for having me.

Colleen: Yeah, it's great to have you both here. Yaritza, you've been an advocate for communities dealing with the harmful effects of pollution, and you gave testimony last December urging the EPA to finalize strong methane rules. So, before we get into the amazing work you've done and continue to do, I wanted to ask Juan a few questions about methane and global warming, and maybe we could start simply with what is methane?

Juan: Well, Colleen, methane is a primary component of natural gas, and it's also a potent greenhouse gas that can accelerate climate change. In fact, it's 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. And today, methane levels in the atmosphere are the highest record.

Colleen: And then, how does methane contribute to global warming?

Juan: Well, natural gas leaks from drilling sites, processing plants, storage facilities, and pipelines that move natural gas from areas of supply to areas of demand. And this, of course, includes methane, which, as I said, is a primary component of natural gas. And these leaks occur throughout the system. Aging pipelines and distribution infrastructure are a common source of leaks, especially in urban environments.

Now, methane leakage during the extraction and distribution of natural gas may be undermining the potential to reduce global warming emissions by using natural gas in place of coal or oil. In addition, recent horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, also known as fracking, have also raised new questions about the impacts that natural gas extraction and use will have on climate change, public health and safety, land and water resources, and people.

Colleen: Methane sounds pretty bad. And if it's so bad, why have scientists focused so much on CO2?

Juan: Well, it's because, in the U.S., for example, CO2 emissions account for nearly 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, while methane accounts for 11%.

Colleen: So, what are some of the scientific solutions?

Juan: Well, this is the good part. There are many, right? Now, during the country's transition to a low-carbon energy future, natural gas can play an important but limited role in the electricity and transportation sectors, but only if policies sufficient to minimize emissions and protect communities and public health are put in place. For example, there need to be stronger federal and state regulations to reduce global warming emissions from extraction, distribution, and use of natural gas.

There need to be better information and stronger regulations, to understand and reduce the potential environmental and public health risks associated with fracking. And lastly, there need to be local or statewide moratoria, or bans, on fracking, that may be appropriate in cases where there is a substantial risk of significant harm to the environment.

Colleen: Thank you for that quick overview. So, let me switch over to Yaritza. As a field organizer of Moms Clean Air Force in Florida, I know you gave testimony last December urging the EPA to finalize strong methane rules. Before we talk about the rule, can you tell me about your community and what prompted you to become an advocate?

Yaritza: One of the eye-opening facts, and one of the things that really drew me to continue my advocacy work, was, before I joined Moms Clean Air Force, I did a lot of volunteer work with veteran organizations throughout my community. And I recognized there was a huge injustice, and predominantly that the communities that were being underserved the most were Black and Brown communities. And that just really stirred something up in me.

Because I am a veteran, I like to serve. That's just within my nature. So, once I finished my service in the Marine Corps, I wanted to continue on my service in my community, and recognizing and seeing these huge injustices really opened up my eyes. When I came across Moms Clean Air Force, I really started to find out a lot more of the scientific data that was coming down, and really just kind of connecting the dots when I saw that Latino children are more likely to die of asthma, and miss over 112,000 days of school a year, just due to oile and gas pollution. That really, really stuck out to me.

Or the fact that there's more than 2 million Latinos that live within a half a mile of an oil and gas refinery or facility. It just really kind of opened up my eyes to recognize what's going on within my community, not just here in Central Florida, but within my Latino community, especially. And what was beautiful about working with Moms Clean Air Force is that they were able to translate some of this information, because I myself am a second-generation Puerto Rican.

So, I was, my first language, although it was Spanish as a child, I have grown up in schools here in the United States. So there's a lot of terminology and there's a lot of language that I'm just not sure how to translate that correctly, professionally, or in an educated manner, to make sure that I get the message across. But working with Moms, I've been able to have that. I have access to that now, and/or also so many other community partners that we work with that are able to help with that language barrier.

Colleen: Can you tell us about some of the families living in these communities and what they go through?

Yaritza: Yeah, for sure. I definitely have our supermom here in Central Florida. Her name is Piper. And she's got two young boys. And when she moved into this really beautiful, brand-new neighborhood, when they moved in there, they were not aware of the coal power plant that was just a few miles from where their residence was. It's one of those things that wasn't brought up to them when they were purchasing the house. Apparently, it's a normal practice that happens in that area of Central Florida.

As you're driving into her neighborhood see... It looks like you're driving into the Simpsons' neighborhood. You see this factory, just pumping out all this white smoke.

And a lot of times, when people pass by that on the freeway, especially here in Central Florida, I've asked, like, "Hey, do you know that that smoke is dirty or it's contaminated?" And they're like, "Oh no, no. It's just white steam that's coming up." And a lot of parents that live in that area just naturally assume that, because the steam that's coming out of the coal power plant, that it's just steam, and that's exactly what it is. When you break it down and explain it to them, like, "No. That's just filtered contaminants, and that's why it's coming out in that color," and, you gotta think, here in Central Florida, we don't have mountains and that much to really block whenever the wind gusts pick up a lot of those contaminants.

So all that stuff is just flying over and landing into her backyard, the playground where her kids are, the parks where her kids are playing. And she's telling me that in her neighborhood, there were, like, roughly eight kids that were getting really, really sick and developed a rare form of cancer because of some of the contaminants that were linked directly to that coal power plant.

To hear and to see the look on Piper's face when she's explaining to me, like, we had no idea that we were bringing our family to this toxic neighborhood. That just, blew me away. Like, how could this happen? How can this happen in modern America that we're just allowing these families to move into, contaminated and what could be toxic areas for their kids? That's not fair. It's not fair because these folks are putting in not just an investment into that neighborhood, but also they plan on bringing something to that community.

And how can they do that when their babies are sick, or when their neighbors are continuously getting sick? It's really hard to keep focus and stay mission-ready and stay focused on what your family plan is, whatever that is, when everyone in your neighborhood's getting sick, and maybe even dying off. The neighborhood that Piper lives in is a very nice neighborhood. Like, this isn't just affecting the poor now. This is affecting everyone.

Air pollution sees no neighborhood lines, they don't see color. Air pollution will contaminate and make anyone sick. So to hear that mom tell me...she's got two young boys. How do families with small kids keep their children safe, especially living so close to this facility? It's not fair, and it should be illegal for that sort of practice to continue.

Colleen: Juan, let me ask you, what is the connection between methane and health issues?

Juan: So, increased methane emissions can drive a rise in lower atmosphere ozone air pollution, which we already know that can cause one plus million premature deaths annually. And so, methane is thought to be responsible for roughly half of these deaths. So, certainly, there are indirect impacts of methane in public health, in as much as they are a contributor to creating ground-level ozone, which we know is dangerous for human health.

Colleen: And then what are the impacts on a person who has asthma?

Juan: Increased ozone emissions and particulate matter, not that they can cause asthma, but that they can increase respiratory difficulties, you know, asthma attacks and so on. So, again, the links between methane and respiratory health are going to be related to ozone production, and we know ozone can irritate the lungs, and can make it more difficult for people to breathe. So, people who already have respiratory diseases such as asthma can be at higher risk of an asthma attack, for example, or hospital visit because of that.

Colleen: Thanks Juan. Yaritza, What role did science play in motivating and moving the needle in the communities? How did you actually bring the science to the community?

Yaritza: Honestly, listening to them, and then just being able to provide some fact sheets with graphics and the scientific facts, because sometimes when you start dumping numbers and, like, a lot of science on folks, it'll go over their heads. But if you can relate it to them and explain to them, within the Latino community, the way that our children are being just directly and negatively impacted because of these contaminants, and it's affecting us more, at a higher, faster rate, that's what gets people's attention.

Like, there's a lot of numbers and data behind it, but when you can show them, this is directly affecting us, like, we are part of these numbers, and it's important for us to continue to voice who we are and where we are, so that it reflects within these numbers as well. And I think that's what's really been helping me kind of educate folks and really get them, interested and excited about the power that they have with their voices. It's just showing them, hey, this is how it's impacting our kids. This is where it's impacting our kids.

And when I'm showing them, this is where we live, in this dark gray area, you know, where all the bad stuff is happening, and then that's when people start to kind of recognize, because if they don't see those numbers in front of them, if they don't see those graphics, they're really not gonna be able to just personalize it and bring it home to them.

Colleen: And how did the community respond to the information you provided?

Latinos are really, really interested, and they want to take action, and they are willing to do that. They're eager to do that. They just don't know what to take action on. So, being able to help translate some of that information and seeing that sense of ownership and power within some of these families and moms and dads that I've been speaking to, and them recognizing, like, "Oh my gosh, my neighborhood is toxic and contaminated. How do I find out more so I can help mitigate these issues?" just has really kind of pushed me forward in my work here, in my advocacy work.

Colleen: What surprised you most about this new role as advocate?

I would've never guessed, while I was on active duty in the United States Marine Corps, that I'd be calling the EPA, of all places, to sit there and call in my complaints, but that's our job. That's our duty as Americans. And especially as a service member myself, I signed an oath to support and to defend those who are not able to do that on their own. And that's exactly what I continue to do, and plan on doing. And I'm trying to bring on the masses, and the more the merrier, right? So we're just also trying to always get folks just active, educated, and ready to move on these topics, because it's really important.

Colleen: What sorts of actions did you do with the community?

Yaritza: So, throughout all of Moms Clean Air Force, all of our field organizers, locally, we'll set up cafecitos, or, like, local meetings, where we'll meet with our community members and our neighbors. We help link them up with our city and state legislators. Because a lot of the times, if we talk to the congresswoman or the congressmen that we have, where they live, the contaminants may not be affecting them. So maybe they're not aware of it.

But when I bring them down to main street over here, and they really see, like, hey, the kids living off of main street down on this side of the road are getting sick because of X, Y, Z, when we bring that to them and show our city leaders and our representatives, this is affecting our kids, and our kids are our future, that's when they really start paying attention.

So, being able to bridge that gap and have these events, virtually, in person with our community leaders, a lot of times, something's happened, for example, right now in South Florida, that they're being affected with some of the buildings and infrastructure and the planning that's going on down there, they contacted us, because they know that what's going on in their neighborhood is an injustice. They reached out to us, and we will just either send out more information, or support, or even using our platform to help elevate their stories.

Because once we start to bring those stories to life and giving them a voice, and especially putting them on notice, showing the world "hey, this is happening," that's when action starts to happen. When folks start to see that little bit of action happen, they see the legislators doing their job, they see rules and regulations changing to their benefit, to our benefit, then that's where the magic really is. And it's really fun showing people the power and empowering them along this journey.

Colleen: Can you tell us about some of the positive changes that have happened?

Yaritza: we've been putting a lot of pressure on some of the coal power plants that we have here, to shut down sooner than anticipated. They had this really crazy plan that they were planning on slowing down emissions, and, like, cutting emissions by the year 2050 or something way down the road. With the amount of pressure that our coalition has put on this power plant, they are now shutting down a lot sooner than anticipated, than planned out. They're doing a lot of switching from fossil fuels and burning coal to cleaner energy.

That's one huge victory that we've had here in Central Florida. And just being able to bring the awareness of what's really directly impacting the health of those residents in that area. It's unfortunate that it took a pandemic to get people to pay attention to what's happening in the environment and how it's really affecting, humans, like the human factor of it all. But it's been really beautiful being a part of this movement. So, just having, power plants shut down sooner.

And when you have corporations and factories cutting down emissions faster and sooner than anticipated, those are always huge wins. Moving to cleaner vehicles, and having green buses, you know, within our fleets, that's always a huge victory, and we've got small, little fleets that are slowly starting to add clean green buses to where they are throughout the state of Florida. So there are just small little things here and there that we're working on, but there's always so much more work to do.

Colleen: Tell me about the EPA methane rule, and you were actually one of the advocates who gave testimony, so tell me about that.

Yaritza: Yeah. It was probably one of the most empowering things I've been able to do in my adult life. It's been to speak up on behalf of literally the state of Florida for this hearing. There have been other calls in the past that have gone on, but this last call that I was able to call in on—these EPA members, they were asking me questions, they're engaging in the conversation as well. They're not just sitting there listening in and having folks just, going through the line.

And what was important and so empowering about that is being able to speak, not just as a mom, but as a Latina, I got to speak on behalf of veterans who are very much concerned about what's going on in our environment. I mean, we're tapping into national defense issues as well. But being able to be the voice for those people who thought that their voice didn't count or matter has been absolutely monumental in my movement and my continued work in this.

Being able to speak to folks at the EPA during that call really gave them a sense of what's happening down here in the swamp. A lot of times, when people don't see things on TV, or they don't hear things in the news, they kind of forget about, and it falls off to the wayside. And here in Florida, we wanna make sure that we are taking care of not just of the residents that live here, but we also wanna make sure we take care of those visitors that come to visit their family members and loved ones, and all of the great stuff we have to offer here in the sunshine state.

Colleen: What sorts of scientific facts did you zero in on? What did you wanna let people know?

Yaritza: I think learning that Latinos are three times more likely to have some sort of respiratory issue or asthma, or even death, that really blew my mind for me as a Latina. As a second-generation Puerto Rican, I know that we have served this country for generations, and I've noticed that we literally work and live in the very environments that are toxic and that are making us sick.

We can't go anywhere else because the cost of living is too much for some families or, you know, just financially, they can't make it geographically. They can't do it. Health-wise, maybe they just can't. They don't have the means or the resources to do so, but just learning how much more we Latinos are just at a higher risk, it at first made zero sense to me. Like, "What do you mean? But we're all American. That doesn't make any sense."

But also recognizing that, in today's times, especially or over the last few years, Latinos, we live in such integrated communities now that it's not just affecting us. We all also have, Black community members. We have White community members. We have Asians. It's such a huge melting pot here in the state of Florida where we have just a huge influx of Latinos living here.

So, just, one--the language barrier really kind of threw me for a loop, but also, to be honest with you, because Spanish is a little bit hinky with me sometimes, it's a little bit difficult for me to understand some of the stuff. So, being able to kind of be that little bridge has been very helpful, but between learning that we're three times more likely to be negatively affected by air pollution just because of where we live and work, that just doesn't sit right with me at all.

And like I was saying before, when we were kids, you know, maybe there was one or two kids that had asthma, and nowadays, it feels like everyone's kid's got something going on. It's rare to find a completely healthy kid, and, like, why? If modern medicine and our technologies have gotten so much more advanced, why do our kids continue to get sick?

Colleen: Those are such important observations and really important questions to ask. What did you find as you started digging into the causes and as you learned more about methane?

One of the facts that I've learned just recently was that there's a lot of gas leaks that are happening from the smaller wells. that's where the majority the emissions are coming from. Small wells are 6% of the production, and responsible for half of the methane emissions that we got going on right now. Like, what? So I think it's, we have, you the big chunks that we have to make sure that we pay attention to, but recognizing that it's us not paying attention and not inspecting all these smaller wells, which are exempt, and not kept, and, maintained. We wanna make sure that EPA makes sure that they enforce these rules and they strengthen those proposal requiring more inspections because if not, I mean, can you imagine that only 6% of these little tiny wells are producing half of the emissions, and how many of those small wells are in those neighborhoods?

Colleen: Right. That's really interesting information to uncover, and really shine a light on.

Yaritza: Mm-hmm. And like I said, I'm a Marine. I worked in a gym. Like, I can pick stuff up, put it down, and I can pump gas like no one's business, but when it comes to the environment, I felt so lost and so out of place in this realm of scientists and educators, and congressional leaders, and, who am I? I'm just, you know, a mom from down the street, but recognizing that there are so many folks who may not have the confidence or courage to speak up when something's going on.

Also recognizing that Latinos historically have always been told for the most part, "Just be grateful that you're here. Be grateful that we're allowing you to be here. Stay in your corner and just maintain this..." There's so many. We've grown into a people, a part of this nation. We are this nation, and we help create it. So to not give people that sense of ownership, as we're telling them to own up to it, has really been, like, probably one of my biggest fighting forces.

Juan: Yaritza, the relationship between Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans from the US as you know at times been tense. But thousands of other Puerto Ricans you and your team mobilized to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricane Maria, to deliver aid to people on the island. Have you seen any change in that relationship—in how you are perceived as a Puerto Rican American in Puerto Rico?

Yaritza: I would say now, especially after Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Ricans that are from the island and the ones that are from New York or from the United States have always had this, like, weird disconnect. But I think after Hurricane Maria, there was a huge bond that happened. And those of us that were here in the United States were relentless on sending help and aid, and helping those who were in need right after that hurricane happened.

I've never been so proud of my people than to see us unite in the way that we did after that hurricane. And even for myself personally, watching my mom cry for her island, I knew that I had to do something. So, I was able to link up with a fantastic veteran nonprofit organization, and we got down there. It took us a couple years to be able to get down there, but there's still always so much work to be able to do. And when I think the islanders, which is what I call them, like, the ones from the mainland, the motherland, when they see us coming down in droves to help out, no matter what, just because I wasn't born here doesn't mean that my blood is not from here. And I think that it took Hurricane Maria for one, for me to rediscover my Latinisma, for me to learn more about the history of my people and my ancestry, but to also show pride in not just my flag, but to understand the history, and, like, the fight that my people have been doing for generations.

I have to continue that, because that means that the work that was done before me would go in vain. So, I think that the Puerto Ricans from the island are recognizing that now, and we've gotten a new sense of respect from them. And to get respect from Viejo San Juan or Viejo Puerto Rico, that's a huge honor for us. At least for me it is, as a Nuyorican, like, that's big for me.

Juan: That's great. Thank you.

Colleen: That’s a great segue to my next question which is about the future. Yaritza, what would you like your community to look like in, say, 5 or 10 years?

Yaritza: Ooh. I want it to look like Narnia. I would love for my community to be more green and clean. I would love to see my community members just more engaged on what's happening, and who's leading the charge in their communities, and for them to just be more aware and educated, and more confident in asking questions and knowing who to go to for those answers. Once we can establish that, man, I mean, the possibilities are unlimited when it comes to our progress and success as a community.

Colleen: Well, Yaritza, you are hardwired for service, and you're really an inspiration. I first wanna thank you for being on the podcast, but really to thank you for the amazing work that you're doing in your community and in other communities. It's really inspiring.

Yaritza: Oh, thank you so much. It's an absolute privilege to be able to continue my service, and it's a lot of fun. It's fun seeing people light up. It's fun seeing people, watching people learn and grow. And it's fun seeing people just bouncing back from what could be some of their worst times. And I hope that everyone has an opportunity to be able to witness that as well.

Juan: I wanna say the same thing to Yaritza. As a veteran, as a mom, as a boricua, she says she's a true Orgullo boricua, like, the pride of Puerto Rican people, somebody that has this level of commitment, to her roots, to her people, while navigating all these sometimes, like, fraught and difficult sort of, you know, cultural relationships. So, thank you so much, Yaritza.

Yaritza: Oh, thank you so much.

Colleen: Juan, I don't wanna forget you. I wanna thank you as well for coming on and giving us a little bit of the foundational science background for this conversation.

Juan: Absolutely. I'm glad to be here. Thank you so much, Colleen.

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