Why We Need to Repair and Maximize the Efficiency of Our Existing Natural Gas System Before Looking to Expand

Shanna Cleveland

As the exuberance for “cheap, domestic” natural gas has heightened, so has pressure to build new pipelines and power plants.  Often lost in the frenzy, however, is the sobering reality that our existing natural gas infrastructure is in need of some serious care and attention.  A recent study highlighted the fact that the pipelines that deliver gas to our homes and businesses are riddled with thousands of leaks.  A large number of those leaks can be blamed on a system that still includes significant amounts of cast iron–some of which dates back to the 1830s.

Explosions in Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011 as well as a 2009 explosion in Gloucester, MA were traced to aging cast iron.  Coupled with the massive San Bruno explosion, the issue spurred the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a “Call to Action” urging regulators and pipeline operators to accelerate the repair and replacement of high risk pipe.  Given this sense of urgency, the estimated timelines for replacement seem interminably long:

  •  81% of the remaining cast iron is buried in only 10 states:
State
Miles of
Cast/Wrought
Iron Mains (2011)
New Jersey
5,138
New York
4,541
Massachusetts
3,901
Pennsylvania
3,260
Michigan
3,153
Illinois
1,832
Connecticut
1,509
Maryland
1,422
Alabama
1,416
Missouri
1,180
  • Of these states, seven have implemented programs with deadlines for complete replacement:
  • New Jersey – 2035; New York – 2090; Pennsylvania – 2111; Michigan – 2040; Illinois – 2031; Alabama – 2040; Connecticut – 2080; Missouri – 2059.

Really? Decades to get the job done, at best?  And about a century to fully “modernize” pipes in some states? Sad, but true.

Though public safety is the primary driver behind pipe replacement and repair, whether the natural gas industry ultimately delivers on its claims for being less damaging to the climate than oil or coal depends on how well natural gas infrastructure addresses leaks.  In addition, those who are clamoring to blindly forge ahead expanding new natural gas infrastructure before we’ve fully assessed the condition of our current system would do well to remember the lessons that New England has already learned so well about the financial and environmental benefits of looking to efficiency first.  Not only is investment in new pipelines and power plants expensive, but it comes with serious and lasting environmental consequences whose costs are too often discounted or ignored.  Why not maximize opportunities for operating the existing natural gas system more efficiently first, before building (and paying for) more?

Despite the fact that we know natural gas prices are predictably volatile, several states have begun to take action to lock energy customers into long-term commitments to buy natural gas-fired power, thus locking them into paying for the fuel even when the price spikes.  For example, here in Massachusetts, one legislator has championed the idea of providing 10-20 year long term contracts for a new natural gas plant.  The problem with signing a long-term contract for electricity from gas is that while customers benefit when the cost of gas is low, they suffer when the price spikes, as it inevitably does.  That’s notably different from long-term contracts for renewable energy which typically have a guaranteed, fixed price.

Proposals for new massive interstate pipelines are in the works as well.  Spectra, a Houston-based natural gas pipeline company is proposing a $500 million expansion for Massachusetts. And all the lines on the map for proposed expansions of pipeline leading from the Marcellus Shale to the Northeast rival the Griswold Family Christmas lights display.

Before we spend billions on new infrastructure chasing the next gold rush, we must repair and rebuild our existing infrastructure and examine the tried and true tool of efficiency.   A recent study on the potential for natural gas efficiency in Massachusetts showed that efficiency could reduce winter electric demand enough to support the increased use of gas on the system without building new infrastructure:

The Benefits of Energy Efficiency

From Jonathan Peress's presentation at the Restructuring Roundtable on June 15, 2012

 

But there is a risk that regulators will not fully take these very real benefits into account as they review and approve the latest energy efficiency plans.  Indeed, traditional energy efficiency naysayers are using the low price of gas as an excuse to call for reduced investment in efficiency.

The bottom line is that natural gas does have a role in our energy future, but it  is one that must be carefully managed and minimized over time if we are to have any hope of averting climate catastrophe.  In the meantime, before we jump to expand new natural gas infrastructure, we need to look closely at what we already have in the ground and apply the lessons we’ve learned about efficiency.

 

 

 

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