Gas leaks bill slow going at State House

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has been in session for over eight months, and state Rep. Christine Barber’s House Bill 2683 hasn’t budged from the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, where it’s sat since Jan. 23.

The purpose of the bill is to ensure utility customers don’t pay for the cost of “leaked and unaccounted for gas,” according to the language of the bill.

“It is set to have a hearing in, we think, early October. It’ll have a public hearing and then go through the committee process,” Barber said. “So right now, we’re trying to educate people about the bill and prepare for the hearing.”

There were 200 unrepaired gas leaks in Somerville in 2016, according to reports by Eversource and National Grid, the two gas companies that service the city. National Grid spokesperson Danielle Williamson said that in January, the company was responsible for 81 gas leaks in the city and that, as of August, that number had decreased to 74 leaks, though the company may have repaired more than seven of Somerville’s gas leaks this year, as new leaks may have sprung up during the first eight months of the year.

HEET President Audrey Schulman said the gas leaks amount to a cost of over $90 million per year in the state of Massachusetts, which averages out to just over $13.21 each year per person living in Massachusetts. She said she supports Barber’s bill and hopes it will be written into law.

“It would be great to pass the bill,” Schulman said. “Ratepayers should not have to pay the cost of the lost gas, and research shows that 7 percent of the leaks emit 50 percent of the gas, by volume, so my hope is that, if the bill passed, the utilities would be incentivized to figure out where the worst leaks were and fix them.”

And Barber said getting gas leaks fixed quickly is part of her goal in pushing House Bill 2863 forward – but she said the primary goal, as the language of the bill suggests, is to shift the cost of leaked and lost gas to the utility companies.

“Should we be paying for gas that never gets to us, and why is the ratepayer – the consumer – the one paying?” Barber asked. “So that’s the simple goal behind the bill, but the hope is, of course, the goal is, at the end, to fix these leaks as quickly as possible.”

Barber said she hears from constituents about gas leaks more and more as groups – including the Home Energy Efficiency Team, or HEET, and Mothers Out Front Somerville – organize public awareness campaigns, like Mothers Out Front Somerville’s public forum on gas leaks in late May.

“I think it seems like it’s something we can fix,” Barber said. “It’s a public safety issue, but it’s also an environmental issue and a cost issue, and it’s something we can actually get our arms around.”

Eversource spokesperson Rhiannon D’Angelo said in an email that the company has “worked closely” with Barber and the Somerville community over the past few years to address gas leaks in the city, noting that Eversource is mounting 13 separate projects in Somerville to replace 1.75 miles of gas pipes this year.

And Schulman emphasized that utility companies like Eversource and National Grid aren’t villains in the gas leaks saga.

“I think it’s important to say that the utilities are doing what they are regulated to do. They are not the bad guys,” Schulman said. “They are tightly regulated by the Department of Public Utilities, so as the understanding of natural gas changes, the regulation changes.”

Williamson said National Grid opposes Barber’s bill, because “it essentially amounts to levying a penalty for factors that are largely outside the utility’s control.”

But she added that National Grid is committed to reducing its carbon footprint through the repair of gas leaks, and the company has set a goal for itself to repair all of its current gas leaks in Massachusetts within the next 10 years – including leaks that National Grid is not required by law to repair within a certain timeframe.

“While a leak may not be at risk of an explosion,” Williamson said, “we still want to repair it.”

She said that this is largely because the leaked gas – mostly methane – has been shown to contribute to climate change.

“We completely accept the science of climate change, and we’ll continue to work toward doing our part,” Williamson said.

Phoebe Whitwell, 24, of Somerville, said her concern about climate change was what spurred her to write a letter to the editor to The Somerville Times, published Aug. 16, that urged other Somerville residents to support Barber’s gas leaks bill.

“The gas leaking out of the pipelines is actually a pretty big percentage of the carbon impact of the Boston area – like, more than the cars driving around,” Whitwell said, citing a HEET statistic, “and it seems like something that, unlike people’s cars which they need to get places, could get fixed.”

Barber said this seeming ease of repair makes the gas leaks a rallying point for constituents who are concerned about climate change and the environment.

“Climate change is so big and there’s so many things we need to do, but gas leaks is a really tangible thing that people have been concerned about and wanting to do something about,” Barber said.

This article was originally published Aug. 23, 2017, in The Somerville Times.

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