City Council hearing shines spotlight on gas leaks

Over 100 advocates, including members of the group Mothers Out Front, who were crucial in bringing the issue to public attention, turned out for the special City Council hearing on September 21 covering Boston’s methane leaks, which lasted over four hours. Also present were City Councilors O’Malley, Zakim, Murphy, and Wu, along with senators and representatives Ehrlich, Eldridge, Malia, Livingstone and Coppinger. A video of the hearing can be found at http://www.cityofboston.gov/citycouncil/cc_video_library.asp?id=9886.

City Councilor O’Malley opened the hearing, giving multiple mentions to Mothers Out Front and speaking about the impacts of methane leaks, which include increased risk of fires and explosions, global warming, and the potential for suffocation at high concentrations. With 86 times the potency of carbon dioxide, methane’s costs to utility ratepayers, infrastructure, and the environment make it a significant public safety hazard, as well as the source of 10% of Massachusetts’ emission impacts.

Four panels spoke, responding to questions from the Councilors, followed by a public comments period that brought the length of the hearing to over three hours. However, supporters of the bill were dedicated to sticking it out through the length of the hearing: “If we’re here at midnight, I will be here at midnight,” said O’Malley during his opening remarks.

The starting times of each panel, as well as notable takeaways from each panel, follow.

Introductory remarks from O’Malley: 0:00:20

Opening panel: 0:09:50

State senator and representative panel: 0:32:30

National Grid panel: 1:04:00

Panel of representatives from environmental advocacy groups: 1:41:30

Panel on public health impacts of leaks: 2:19:00

Public testimony: 2:44:00

The opening panel featured Austin Blackmon, Carl Spector, and two representatives from the Public Works Department. Important points made include:

  • On city construction projects, utilities are not required to fix leaks whenever streets are opened up.
  • The city has no authority over utility infrastructure, and does not perform inspections.
  • The Department of Public Utilities has no staff resources for tracking gas leaks across time, but it’s possible to ask the DPU for data. The City has asked National Grid to input grade 2 gas leaks (those that don’t represent a current hazard, but could pose a hazard in the future and should be scheduled for repairs) into the City of Boston Utility Coordination Software (COBUCS) database of utility and street repairs.

A panel of state senators and representatives Laurie Erlich, Jay Livingstone, Jamie Eldredge, and Edward Coppenger followed, giving testimony including:

  • One 30-year-old leak has been emitting methane 24/7 for as long as it has existed.
  • Boston’s gas delivery system is the second-oldest in the U.S., and has the highest percentage of cast-iron pipes.
  • Many leaks continue to spring up even after roads are repaved—when utilities clearly have an opportunity to fix the leaks when streets are opened for repair.

One particularly striking fact, given by Ehrlich, is that the amount of money that would be needed to repair the leaks is the same amount that the leaks cost in just a year and a half. This means that rather than spending money in a way that would benefit the environment, public health, utility ratepayers, and ultimately the utilities themselves, gas companies are choosing to let the problem slide and pass the cost along to ratepayers. If this money were spent on fixing the leaks, it could remedy the region’s natural gas shortage—an issue frequently used as justification for the construction of additional gas pipelines.

This fact ties in directly with one frequently pointed out by BCAN members: the construction of the proposed West Roxbury pipeline, which has been justified in terms of its ability to increase the pressure in Boston’s pipes, will subsequently force more gas through the existing holes and potentially cause new ones; in this way, it would actually worsen both the leak crisis and the gas shortage.

Representatives Sue Fleck and Joe Carroll from gas utility National Grid also spoke, bringing a different viewpoint to the conversation with facts including:

  • National Grid repairs 20-25 miles of gas pipes annually.
  • Improvements currently being made include replacing small-diameter pipes with larger ones, sealing the insides of pipes, and using robotic technology for pipe repairs.
  • National Grid fixes leaks that are on newer pipes but doesn’t prioritize fixing those on older pipes that will soon be replaced. This brings into question why leaks exist that are 20-30 years old; Sue Fleck claimed that these leaks are anomalous.
  • While the Department of Public Utilities performs random audits on a daily basis, there are no checks from independent or external parties after leaks are fixed.
  • Technology is not currently available—or not in use by National Grid—to measure exactly how much gas is being lost from a given leak. Rather, National Grid measures the amount of gas in the air around a leak as a way of determining explosion risk.

Sue Fleck disputed the $90 million figure calculated to be the annual cost of the leaks, but offered no alternative figure.

City Council Michelle Wu asked how the utility companies’ behavior would change if they became responsible for paying the cost of gas lost through leaks—a proposal that has been introduced in legislation. Sue Fleck responded that she was unfamiliar with legislation, and declined to answer.

Next was a panel made up of representatives from environmental advocacy groups including Joel Wool from Clean Water, Mike Prokosch from the Boston Climate Action Network, Audrey Shulman from the Home Energy Efficiency Team, and Ed Woll from the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club. Their diverse perspectives brought facts to the table including:

  • Both Texas and Pennsylvania have implemented legislation that limits the amount of the cost of gas leaks that can be passed on to ratepayers. Within two years of Texas putting this legislation into place, the number of leaks was reduced an estimated 45-55%.
  • Letting ratepayers pick up the tab for leaked gas is essentially subsidizing the fossil fuel industry twice, since the industries already receive federal subsidies.
  • Bipartisan support exists for fixing leaks and moving to a greener future as quickly as possible.
  • The Home Energy Efficiency Team were the first to map the leaks and report them to the city. Before this, the city was unaware of the extent and distribution of the leaks.
  • 6% of Level 3 leaks (those not presenting an immediate threat, but which should be scheduled for repairs) have likely existed at a time when the street over them was being repaved, meaning that the utilities did not take advantage of the opportunity to fix the leaks, although it makes sense to fix them when roads are already torn up—doing so minimizes disturbance to traffic and city life, and saves money since the city will already be repaving the street.
  • Every homeowner would save $20-30 per month if leaked gas was not being lost. Overall, this amounts to $5-8 million saved on behalf of all homeowners were the leaks fixed, meaning that fixing the leaks would have a stimulating impact on the economy.
  • Fixing the leaks would reduce government expenses as well as residential expenses—government buildings would use less gas, and fewer firefighting expeditions to put out gas-induced fires would be necessary, meaning that fixing the leaks could indirectly lower taxes.
  • Utilities would have more revenue if gas were not being lost from leaks, since they would be getting full retail price for the gas.
  • If the leaks were fixed, the gas saved could be used to heat additional housing.
  • National Grid makes twice the money investing in new supply pipelines that they would make from fixing their local distribution pipes.
  • National Grid has already sped up their timeline for replacing all leaking pipes from 100 years to 20 due to public pressure.

The third panel, made up of Nathan Phillips from the Boston University Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Dick Clapp from the Boston University School of Public Health, Claire Corcoran of Mothers Out Front, and Sarah Freeman of the Arborway Coalition, spoke about the numerous public health impacts of leaks, giving facts including:

  • Only 10% of leaks account for around 50% of the leaked gas, meaning that targeting just a small number of leaks could have a major impacts.
  • The high-tech equipment needed to detect leaks is readily available.
  • The utility companies’ arguments that newer pipelines are safer don’t necessarily address the real issue at hand, since the risk of third-party hits to pipes is out of the control of utilities.
  • Methane is a precursor to ground-level ozone, making it a major contributor to asthma, which is currently occurring and epidemic levels and disproportionately impacts children, low-income communities, and people of color, making gas leaks a social justice issue as well as environmental threat.
  • The loss of trees due to suffocation from methane cannot be fixed simply by planting more trees, since lost trees alter water cycles and the overall ecosystem. These older trees are correlated with economic and environmental benefits as well as increased mental health and lower electric bills in the summer. Eliminating older and larger trees, and replacing them with smaller saplings, reduces all of these benefits.

A period for public comments followed the panels, beginning at the 2:44:00 point in the video. Particularly notable was the powerful testimony from three students representing the Boston Student Advisory Council, who waited through hours of panels for their opportunity to speak out.

One of the most striking, and encouraging, themes presented by numerous panels was the fact that public pressure is possibly the most effective force for changing the behavior of utility companies. Take the case of Texas, where just two years after legislation was enacted limiting the amount of cost of lost gas could be passed on to ratepayers, gas leaks decreased an estimated 45-55%. That’s a 45-55% decrease in the potent methane choking trees, triggering asthma, causing explosions, warming the earth, and wasting ratepayer and government money. Changing the motives of utility companies works—and that change in motivation comes from the legislative changes that public pressure produces. Public pressure has already sped up the timeline for pipe repairs from 100 years to 20. Continued public advocacy is what’s needed to push through the legislation that will fix the pipes.

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