This week, the Senate passed legislation to address leaking natural gas pipelines. I was pleased to support this legislation. Jeanne Mooney has posted the official senate press release on this site, but I wanted to offer some additional explanation and comments.
Leaking natural gas is a real problem: It is costly. It sometimes endangers the public. It contributes to global warming. It is also hard to quantify. Cost estimates circulated in the debate varied from $40 million per year to $150 million per year. The first thing the bill does is to create a registry and a classification framework for leaks.
One of the important facts that came out in the debate is that natural gas leaks are not all fixed immediately. Some leaks are low volume and hard to locate — when methane is detected emerging from an opening in the ground, it could be coming from anywhere along a pipeline. Locating the leak might require the excavation of hundreds of yards of roadway. So, some prioritization needs to occur and in the absence of safety risks, some delay is acceptable. Risk assessment is the concept behind the classification system:
- Leaks representing a hazard to persons or properties require immediate notification to municipal officials and expeditious repair.
- Leaks that seem to have the potential to grow to hazardous levels are to be monitored and fixed within a year.
- Non-hazardous leaks are to be monitored on less rigorous schedule.
Hopefully as leaks are registered and classified, we’ll get a better handle on the problem.
We heard an estimate that there are 20,000 known leaks along 21,000 miles of gas pipeline in Massachusetts — our infrastructure being among the oldest in the country. As noted by a commenter on this website earlier, utilities don’t have strong financial incentives to fix them. The costs of repair don’t immediately get built into their rate base and they may not be able to recover the costs in a timely way.
That’s the other big problem that the legislation solves — it creates a mechanism to allow utilities to plan for repairs and recover the costs of repairs. It defines a concept of “eligible infrastructure replacement”. It allows utilities to submit plans for eligible infrastructure replacement and, with regulatory approval, to promptly begin to recover the costs of replacement.
The bill also allows utilities to offer programs to customers to increase “availability, affordability and feasibility” of natural gas service to new customers and prioritizes expansion to low income customers currently receiving fuel assistance. Conversion to natural gas can save consumers money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There was a flurry of conversation about an amendment that would have required the Department of Public Utilities to assess each proposed service expansion in terms of greenhouse gas impact. It went through several variations of language, but all of them had the potential to inject complexity and the probability of litigation into what should be a very routine process. I spoke and voted against this amendment and it failed on a rollcall vote of 6 to 32. There is no legislator and few individuals who have done more than I have to address the problem of climate change, but I am quite sure that litigation about the issue is a poor strategy. Courts can handle individual cases, but they are ill-equipped to make the long-term big-picture trade-offs that are necessary as we struggle to address climate change.
The legislation now goes to conference committee to reconcile differences with the House version — the Senate added a number of safety improvements to the bill.
We should not be encouraging switching to more fossil fuels.
First we need to weatherize our homes and businesses. MassSave has a great program to help.
Rather than switch from oil or old baseboard electric to gas – there should be more rebates and low-income grants for people to switch to high-efficiency heat pumps. The new heat pumps work well down to 5 degrees and provide heat down to negative 15 degrees. They are much more environmentally friendly and will help us transition to a clean economy, free from fossil fuels.
Many studies have shown that with our energy efficiency programs, there is no need for new fossil fuel transmission lines. We need to get off fossil fuels.
I hope people will look into high-effiency heat pumps.
I saw the quote below attributed to you, and while I agree with your general sentiment, I want to make sure you understand that individual consumers are powerless in this case. The gas in the proposed new pipeline, if it even remains in Massachusetts, would be used primarily for electricity generation, not for heating homes. As an electric ratepayer, I have no say in what power source is used in the electricity I purchase. Also, there are indications that the gas in the proposed pipeline is intended for export, in which case even reducing local demand to zero will not stop the pipeline.
Also, I am concerned about your statement above that “Conversion to natural gas can … reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Natural gas is methane, which is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It is in no way green energy, and as Jane noted above, it is a fossil fuel.
“I’m a strong supporter of energy conservation — bike to work, eat low on the food chain and have one of the most energy efficient homes in New England. I’m less enthusiastic about efforts to limit or disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure. If we stop buying it, they’ll stop building it. The choice is ours, not theirs. Would welcome direct contact on this issue. My website is willbrownsberger.com and it is a two way website.
All best, Will B.”
Thanks, Charley and Jane.
Jane, I totally agree we need to do conservation first, but I wouldn’t tie the availability of gas service to it. Regarding heat pumps, remember that they are using grid electricity — 2/3 or more of the original fuel energy is lost in transmission. In our own efforts toward greater efficiency (after doing a lot of insulation), we ended up choosing natural gas over heat pumps as being more efficient over the total life cycle. Hopefully, the pumps will continue to get better — I’d love to switch at a later date. Please this page for links about on the deep energy retrofit that we did.
Charley, I do recognize that fugitive emissions reduce the climate benefits of gas over coal as a power source — hard to get reliable quantification of the fugitive emissions. This is a subject that we’ll continue to try to accumulate better data on. All the more reason to fix leaks though, which is the main purpose of this bill.
Regarding powerlessness of consumers, many utilities offer green energy options for an upcharge and we do have ability to reduce our power consumption. But your point is well taken that ultimately we are all strapped in together to the grid. Our entire dependence on the fossil fuel infrastructure — for food, water, sanitation, health care, public safety — is something I do acknowledge. For these essentials, however, disrupting energy supply could cause has much harm today as climate change may in the future.
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