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.