How a Community College Dropout Discovered an Unknown Climate Hazard Right Beneath Our Feet

Bob Ackley has shown that America's cities are peppered with gas leaks -- so many that some scientists now believe that natural gas may be accelerating climate change in a way that few had ever suspected.

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Bob Ackley spent nearly 30 years working for the gas industry; Now he's switched sides. (Matter)

Bob Ackley still remembers the first time he found a gas leak. The son of a golf-course greenskeeper, he grew up in Northborough, a small suburban town close to Boston. It was 1979, and he had taken a summer job with a local company that mapped gas leaks for utilities. The country was reeling from the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Jimmy Carter was president, and My Sharona was playing on the radio as Ackley -- then just 20 -- sat in the passenger seat of a sky-blue Dodge Aspen.

His boss had the wheel. Roland Boucher was an older, heavy-set man with pale white skin and ruddy cheeks. A mess of electronics sat between the dashboard and front seat, with tubes connecting to a black box the size of a lunchbox. Just a few metres below them, encased in the soil, streets and yards of Massachusetts, natural gas mains and smaller service lines spread out like the bronchioles of a human lung. As his map flapped in the road-wind, Ackley focused on the instruments and tried to spot a leak.

Boucher told him to look up instead: "You look for dead trees, dead grass and dead shrubs." It seemed too crude, but a moment later Boucher swerved to the curb. A Norway maple stood in a patch of dead grass by the side of the road. The tree was also dying, its top branches barren twigs. The air held the foul odour of rotten eggs --mercaptan, a chemical added to natural gas to make it easier to detect leaks. Boucher poked around the roots with a steel bar and pushed the snout of a gas meter into the earth around the tree. The needle jumped: well over 20 per cent of the air in the soil was natural gas. The figure should have been less than one per cent. Methane was leaking from an underground pipe and seeping into the ground above.

They found half a dozen leaks that morning, and Ackley would find countless more in the years he spent driving across north-eastern America on contract for local gas companies. The pay was good, he enjoyed the travel, and the work was easy -- days often ended in the nearest bar. He abandoned his education when Mandy, a pretty young brunette he'd been dating, announced she was pregnant. The couple wed in 1982, and Ackley used his college savings for a down-payment on a house not far from where he had grown up.

Over the years he grew from a lithe, shaggy-haired kid to a stout thirty-something with a receding hairline. Afternoons once spent at the bar were now occupied by Little League games and caring for his eldest daughter, who has a mental disability. It wasn't quite what he'd envisioned for himself, but all things considered it was a good life: he and Mandy had three more kids, a home in the suburbs, holidays on Cape Cod each summer.

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Phil McKenna writes investigative features on energy and the environment for New Scientist and other publications.

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