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June 14, 2013

Reps debate how many gas leaks to repair

If it smells like gas when you’re out for your afternoon walk, it probably is.

The North Shore shares one of the nation’s oldest infrastructures for natural gas, and it’s no surprise that those ancient, cast-iron pipes are suffering from cracks and leaks.

What to do about it seems to have divided two prominent North Shore legislators. Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem) is sponsoring a bill designed to address two issues, encouraging repairs on the most dangerous leaks and enabling gas companies to expand their reach to more people.

Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) sees Keenan’s bill as both a bit too little and a bit too much. She is promoting her own measure, which mandates repairs on significantly more leaks. And she expresses skepticism at efforts to expand natural gas availability, suggesting it could lead to charging ratepayers for pipes that send the gas to foreign markets.

Despite this, both representatives downplay their differences.

“My bill is actually based on Lori’s bill last session, which was unanimously adopted,” Keenan said. “I don’t think we’re in opposition.”

“We have quite a bit of agreement,” Ehrlich said, “especially when it comes to gas leaks.”

Keenan cited colleagues who are hearing pleas from homeowners wanting gas. “As difficult as it is for my friends in the oil business to hear, gas is half the cost,” he said.

In addition, he sees access to shale gas being recovered through hydraulic fracking in New York and Pennsylvania as key to creating a 700-megawatt, gas-fired power plant in Salem. To help the gas companies expand, his bill includes language allowing them to raise rates to finance the work. In the past, such increases came after the work was finished.

“The ratepayers are going to pay for it either way,” he said. The Department of Public Utilities “will set the rates so there is no rate shock.”

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