Environmental activists have long seen natural gas utilities as something of a foe. While natural gas may be cleaner than coal, it’s still a fossil fuel, and environmentalists worry about its impact on climate change. But environmentalists and gas companies in Massachusetts are doing something unusual — they’re teaming up to try to fix something they both agree is a problem.

On a quiet road in Lexington, Jason Taylor held a device that looked like a stick with a little suction cup at the end, and slowly waved it low over the ground like a metal detector at the beach. But what he was looking for is a natural gas leak.

“So it basically starts somewhere around here," he said as the device started to beep. "You can hear that right now as I bring the wand along where it is.” He put it in a hole in the dirt lane and the numbers on the detector started climbing.

“Twenty four percent of this — what's coming through this little suction cup right here — 24 percent of what it's reading is gas,” he said.

Taylor’s working with a non-profit group called HEET, which stands for the Home Energy Efficiency Team. He and the group’s founder, Audrey Schulman, stretched out a tape measure to figure out how much the leak has spread. “OK, 173 feet," Taylor called out. "Now we've just got to do the width.”

Audrey Schulman (left) and Jason Taylor measure how much ground is impacted by a gas leak in Lexington.
Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

As they worked, Max Chiang, who lives on this road, pulled up in his car and asked what they’re up to. He said the leak has been here for more than a decade. “I don't know how many times I reported it," Chiang said. "I guess they don't think it's a big deal or whatever. I don’t know. But they just — nobody takes care of it.”

The gas companies don’t fix an estimated 16,000 leaks like this around the state, because they don’t pose a safety risk. But Schulman said they do pose a risk to the environment. “Natural gas is over 90 percent methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas on steroids,” she said.

For years, Shulman’s organization and another environmental advocacy group called Mothers Out Fronthave been trying to get the gas companies to do something about the leaks. Initially, getting the utility’s cooperation was a challenge.

“The relationship in the past was really, really contentious," Schulman said. "In general, HEET would — my nonprofit — would release some sort of report in the press and the utilities would come back with some angry statement, and I would respond with some angrier statement, and we would both cast aspersions upon each other's facts, knowledge, clothing. Like, anything we could.”  

But one day, a utility executive responded differently, saying more information on gas leaks could help his company. “And I was so startled by that, that I think that that was the moment when I began to realize we might be able to all work together," Schulman said.

And that’s what they did. The gas utilities started meeting with HEET and Mothers Out Front to try to come up with a solution to the environmental problem. “We all realized we had the same goals, which is to fix the biggest leaks first,” Schulman said. That’s because half of the methane that’s being released is coming from just 7 percent of the leaks.

Audrey Schulman and Jason Taylor of HEET.
Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

A state law passed last year actually mandates that the gas companies identify and fix those leaks. But the challenge was figuring out which ones are the worst.

To attempt to do this, a team of Eversource workers in hard hats and orange vests gathered in the middle of a Somerville intersection and drilled a hole in the street. Kevin Kelley of Eversource pointed out a device as they inserted it into the hole. “That's the flux bar,” he said. This new technology is a part of what they hope is the solution, because it’s a relatively easy and cost-effective way to tell how far a leak is spreading.

The "flux bar" will help utilities determine what area of ground is impacted by a natural gas leak.
Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

“Now we're actually measuring the amount of gas that's under the ground that could escape to the atmosphere,” Kelley said. And Eversource and the state’s other gas utilities will ultimately use that information to fix the worst leaks. That’s a fundamental shift in the company’s approach to this.

“We always looked at leaks from a risk perspective," Kelley said. "And we started looking at the emission piece of it over the last, you know, two or three years with Mothers Out Front and HEET and other groups pressing the issue. And it really opened our eyes to work with them and come up with solutions to, you know, address their issues.”

Kevin Kelley, Vice President of Gas Operations at Eversource, monitors gas leak readings on a "flux bar" device.
Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

It’s a bit of a "strange bedfellows" situation, especially since Mothers Out Front and HEET actually want to see the natural gas industry replaced by renewable energy sources like solar and wind. But Kelley says as they’ve talked through the issue, the environmentalists have been respectful and realistic.  And for now, everyone’s decided to put their differences aside, really listen to each other, and work together to reduce a powerful greenhouse gas spilling into the atmosphere.