SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 14, 2013

Reps debate how many gas leaks to repair

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — 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.”

Natural gas recovered by fracking has the potential to make the United States independent of foreign sources, providing a bridge to renewable energies like solar, he added.

“I don’t think it’s a good plan to turn our backs on this abundant resource,” Keenan said.

As for leaks, Keenan’s bill allows gas leaks be to prioritized, with next-day repairs required for the most dangerous. Those labeled “hazardous” would not require immediate attention. A third category would include leaks that the gas company must “just be aware of,” but not necessarily repair.

Keenan points out that his bill has bipartisan support, with Rep. Brad Jones (R-North Reading) a co-sponsor.

In testimony before Keenan’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, however, Ehrlich estimated that there are 20,000 gas leaks across the commonwealth, spewing out roughly $38 million worth of methane yearly. The value of the gas belies concerns that capping the leaks would be too expensive, she said.

“Not only are these dollars wastefully floating up into the air, but methane is a far more climate-damaging gas than CO2. Most notoriously and tragically, these leaks often lead to explosions, property destruction, injury and death,” she said.

Keenan’s bill would require the gas companies to deal with fewer than 1,000 leaks, she said. Gas companies are indifferent to the losses generated by all the other leaks because ratepayers are charged for them, she said. “It’s as if they’re selling it.”

As to any expansion of gas pipelines, Ehrlich expressed “deep concern.” She noted that gas from the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania is already earmarked for the “Bluegrass Pipeline,” which would send it to Texas and then abroad.

“This is great for the gas companies, but maybe not so great for ratepayers who will pay for the pipeline,” she told the committee. “Pennsylvania residents and (others) have had to endure damage to their water supplies and installation of pipelines next to their homes. People at the end of the pipeline have to endure cryogenic plants to liquefy the gas for export.”

The same thing could happen in Massachusetts, she said. But correcting this could be as simple as a change in the wording of the bill.

“I’m just saying, the language is so broad it opens up the possibility of ratepayers paying for the pipelines,” she said.

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.