Risky Business: Leaking Natural Gas Infrastructure and How to Fix It

Nov 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On the day after Thanksgiving, an explosion shook the City of Springfield. A natural gas pipeline leak led to the explosion that injured eighteen people and brought down two buildings.  The details behind the cause of this explosion are still being pieced together, but  once again, public confidence has been shaken in the pipeline system that is supposed to transport natural gas safely and reliably to homes, businesses and institutions in communities throughout the nation. Today, CLF is releasing a report on the importance of addressing problems with our aging, leaky natural gas  infrastructure. (You can download a free copy of that report here, and find the press release here.)

In Massachusetts, local distribution companies operate almost 21,000 miles of pipeline—that’s almost enough pipe to encircle the earth. But people seldom give much thought to those pipes that are running beneath their homes, beneath their businesses and beneath their feet.

That has been changing since the explosions that rocked San Bruno, California in 2010 and Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2011. Shortly afterwards, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation issued a national “Call to Action” to address pipeline safety, but there are still many hurdles to be overcome. One of the toughest obstacles to tackle is the replacement of aging, leak-prone pipelines and the swift repair of leaks on the system. Public safety is the primary driver behind the repair and replacement of aging pipes, but it is also important to recognize the added benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving a valuable resource, and reducing ratepayer costs.

The need for action is particularly acute in Massachusetts where over one-third of the system is considered “leak-prone”—made up of cast iron or unprotected steel pipe. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 50% of the cast iron left on the United States distribution system is centered in only four states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Though Massachusetts regulators have been working to find solutions to this problem, there is more to be done.

This infographic underscores the need for additional work in Massachusetts. So significant are the leaks that the gains from efficiency programs put in place by Massachusetts regulators have been overwhelmed by the amount of gas lost through leaky pipes. The costs of those leaks are being borne not by the utilities, or by the regulators, but by consumers. Utilities pass the cost of lost gas onto ratepayers to the tune of $38.8 million a year.

“Fugitive emissions from aging gas pipelines across Massachusetts are polluting our environment – releasing more greenhouse gases than we are saving through all of our energy efficiency efforts,” said D. Michael Langford, national president of the Utility Workers Union of America. “This is problematic for the environment and the economy, but fixing this problem provides an important opportunity. Putting people to work fixing leak-prone pipelines will save Massachusetts ratepayers money by simultaneously modernizing our pipe infrastructure, improving efficiency and helping to protect the environment.”

Fortunately, there are some clear policy options that could be implemented relatively quickly to prevent this valuable resource from endangering the public and vanishing into thin air.  “The good news is that not only would these policies increase public safety and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they also provide an opportunity to create good, local jobs,” according to Cindy Luppi, New England Director of Clean Water Action.  As she points out, “local neighborhoods, as well as first responders, will bear the brunt of impacts if this aging system experiences an explosion.   We hope all public officials will embrace real solutions that value health and safety, ratepayer equity and climate leadership.”

As outlined in our report, Into Thin Air, CLF is advocating for five specific policies to accelerate the replacement of aging pipe and ensure that existing pipeline is properly examined and repaired:

1)    Establishing Leak Classification and Repair Timelines that provide a uniform system for classifying leaks according to level of hazard and require repair within a specified time;

2)    Limiting or Ending Cost Recovery for Lost and Unaccounted for Gas so that companies have an incentive to identify the causes of lost gas and prevent them;

3)    Expanding existing replacement programs and adding performance benchmarks;

4)    Changing Service Quality Standards to include requirements for reducing leaks on the system;

5)    Enhancing monitoring and reporting requirements to give the public and regulators more information.

Over the coming months, we’ll be working with our allies at Clean Water Action and the BlueGreen Alliance to raise public awareness about the need to tackle this issue. We’ll also work with communities to make sure they know how to identify and report gas leaks and talk with them about the benefits of policies that make for a safer, cleaner natural gas system. If you’re interested in joining us, please contact me at scleveland@clf.org.

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