October 2, 2017

Natural gas leaks cost Mass. $39M annually

Construction crews test natural gas flow as they work to install pipelines.

Natural gas is leaking into the atmosphere from more than 900 locations in Worcester alone, part of a much larger statewide problem costing ratepayers nearly $40 million annually.

Using a 2014 law, state regulators and utility companies are working to cut down on the losses – largely caused by an aging natural gas infrastructure – while new legislation at the State House looks to prohibit utilities from charging customers for the loss of the fossil fuel.

"Finding and fixing that small fraction of big gusher leaks that are grade 3 is in the best interest of everybody," said Audrey Schulman, president of Cambridge advocacy group Home Energy Efficient Team. "It wastes ratepayers' money, hurts trees and is an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas."

Nationwide, eight to 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas is lost annually, says the U.S. Department of Transportation. This greenhouse gas is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Leaks are everywhere

Kelley Square in Worcester has three of the city's 906 natural gas leaks left unrepaired in 2016.

In Worcester, gas is escaping from 906 unrepaired leaks, as of December, according to HEET. Throughout Massachusetts, there are 16,507 unrepaired leaks, including at least one in almost every community with gas lines.

In Worcester, the leaks are throughout the city, including in front of popular restaurant deadhorse hill and four on Water Street (including three right near Kelley Square). Another 260 leaks were reported and repaired last year, but those were the more serious and potentially explosive leaks.

When a leak reaches Grade 2 or 1, it is deemed hazardous and is repaired in short order. Grade 3 leaks, however, can remain unrepaired for years. Utilities weren't required to report leaks until 2014, but Worcester has leaks dating back to that first year, including one on Duxbury Street and four at the intersection of Hamilton and Plantation streets.

Worcester has the second most unrepaired gas leaks of any Massachusetts community, while Boston took the top mark with 1,392. This is primarily due to the cities' size and age of gas pipes, according to HEET.

The $39M problem

Pipeline leaks in Massachusetts are typically caused by aging infrastructure but can be caused by issues like accidents and careless digging.

Natural gas utilities lose somewhere between 0.5 and 2 percent of their supply each year, said Bob Ackley, president of Southborough advocacy group Gas Safety Inc. This problem isn't entirely from leaky pipes, as the category includes theft, venting, gas used by the company itself, and metering error.

The state Department of Public Utilities allows utilities like Eversource Energy and National Grid to recover the cost of lost gas by factoring it into their supply rates. Their customers then pay those rates on the natural gas they use.

The increase in rates due to LAUF costs ratepayers $38.8 million each year, said State Sen. Jamie Eldrige (D-Marlborough). Eldridge has filed legislation to prohibit utilities from factoring lost into their rates, although the bill has yet to move toward approval.

Separately, a Massachusetts law was passed in 2014 requiring gas companies to submit plans to repair or replace infrastructure to reduce leaks. The law directed DPU to institute regulations to implement a monitoring program.

The regulations stemming from that law are expected to take effect after a Nov. 7 comment deadline to the DPU.

"It's something we're watching very closely," said Michael Durand, Eversource spokesman.

The $65M investment

This year, Eversource is replacing five miles of leak-prone cast iron pipe in Worcester and 40 miles of pipe statewide in favor of more durable plastic pipes to help reduce leaks as part of a $65-million investment.

The company, which has about 3,000 miles of gas mains in the state, plans to increase the miles of aging and leaky pipe replaced each year, Durand said.

Eversource and other gas companies are working closely with organizations like HEET on a plan to identify Level 3 leaks that may be leaking more than originally suspected, Durand said.

These relatively minor Level 3 leaks can still have a devastating impact on the environment, said Ackley, whose organization advocates for safer gas infrastructure. He tests areas for gas leaks and is convinced a large beech tree in the Worcester's Elm Park is dying due to an identified gas leak.

"The thing is getting smoked," he said.


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