By Beth Treffeisen
Underneath Boston’s streets are miles of pipelines delivering natural gas to residents and businesses, providing energy for heating, cooking, and electricity. But, due to aging infrastructure in Boston, much of that gas is lost before it even reaches its destination through thousands of leaks in pipes throughout the City.
Many of these gas leaks that are deemed non-hazardous by utility companies have been open for years, killing nearby vegetation, triggering long-term respiratory illness, and adding harmful chemicals into the atmosphere that aid global warming.
In an effort to combat this issue, the Boston City Council passed an ordinance at the December 14, hearing that will work to eliminate all gas leaks within the city in the next six years.
“It is irrefutable that these gas leaks cause real potential danger not only for the public health, the public safety, obviously for the environment and rate payers,” said City Councilor Matt O’Malley who spear headed this legislation.
He continued, “This ordinance will help address that. This ordinance will make sure that the City has the tools to better negotiate, better work, and better coordinate services.”
The ordinance will work to improve the management of City infrastructure by coordinating maintenance, repair, upgrades, and replacement with gas companies in order to minimize costs, traffic disruption and blockage due to street openings.
It will also protect the City’s and its residents’ investments in urban trees and green space by making the utility companies responsible for damaged trees.
“We spend a lot of money and a lot of energy on them and these gas leaks are killing our trees,” said City Councilor Josh Zakim. “I think it’s high time that we do this.”
Natural gas is proven to be 86 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and is responsible for tree and shrubbery death.
It is estimated that $90 million per year is being spent on gas that has leaked out according to O’Malley. Ratepayers are responsible for paying for not only the gas that has leaked into the atmosphere, but for fixing the leaks managed by National Grid and Eversource.
Once it gains a signature from Mayor Martin Walsh who is in support of this legislation it will go into effect on July 1, 2017.
This new legislation will provide better coordination between the Department of Public Works during non-emergency repairs and the gas companies. During any opening of the street for repairs for things like water and sewer pipes and electrical lines that run underground, the City will invite the gas company to repair or replace any aging, leak-prone, or leaking natural gas.
If those repairs are not made, the City has gained the authority to deny any subsequent applications for the gas company to open the ground until those repairs are made.
National Grid in a statement said that they share the City’s interest in repairing gas mains and reducing leaks and that they will fully engage in the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) process to establish new guidelines for incorporating environmental considerations into their leak repair plans.
“We are concerned with this ordinance, as it is not consistent with state regulations,” wrote Danielle Williamson the lead communications specialist for National Grid in Massachusetts through e-mail. “Repairing and replacing gas infrastructure is everyone’s objective; however, the city’s ordinance would lead to the inconsistent application of procedures to address this goal.”
Mothers Out Front, who have worked hard to eliminate gas leaks within Boston through outreach and protests are excited about this new legislation that will improve coordination of infrastructure repair with utility companies and help speed up the repair and replacement of leaky pipes.
“It will protect consumers by reducing the amount of leaked gas that we as ratepayers pay for in our utility bills, but never receive,” said Ania Camargo, a Mothers Out Front volunteer in a statement. “We hope that communities all across the Commonwealth will adopt a similar ordinance to hold the utilities accountable for the upkeep of their infrastructure.”
In the future, Mothers Out Front will be working with their allies to influence the rules the DPU is proposing on how to measure super emitters, which make up seven percent of leaks but emit 50 percent of the methane.
In July the state legislature passed a bill that said the DPU needed to ask the gas companies to find and fix leaks that had “significant environmental impact.”
On the same day that the ordinance was passed, the DPU released proposed new rules for how gas companies would be required to find super emitters and the timeline for fixing them.
Mothers Out Front does not agree with the methodologies being proposed or the timelines and will be working on comment letters on that issue.
In addition the Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) and Boston University scientists will be working with Columbia Gas and Eversource over the next six months to study the best methodologies to find super emitters. So far, according to Mothers Out Front, National Grid has not agreed to work with them on this project.
Audrey Shulman the president of HEET said currently utilities have no friendly grading system that measure high volume gas leaks based on environmental impacts and not safety.
Shulman is excited about this work because it will give utility companies a map so whenever work is being done at a certain point in the city they can easily pin-point out the potential leaks and call up the utility companies.
Currently the gas companies grade the leaks on a scale on one to three. Ones represent the biggest and are potentially dangerous and need to be responded to immediately. A two represents a non-hazardous leak but has to be maintained every six months and repaired in one year and a three is non-hazardous and needs to be checked on annually.
Shulman said that there are grade three leaks in Boston that can be potentially explosive but have a median age of 16 years.
“This is a way to reduce that number and make it a litter safer for everyone,” said Shulman.
Nathan Phillips a Boston University researcher who will also be working on this project hopes to make it a smarter operating city by making it more integrated and better managed.
“It’s like a human body,” said Phillips. “It has systems that communicate with one another but all of them coordinate on separate platforms. The systems need to be in communication with one another.”
In New Jersey, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Google Earth Outreach partnered with the Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) to reduce methane emissions from targeted areas in its service territory by 83 percent and prioritize which aging distribution pipelines it should replace first.
This was done by equipping a Google Street View car with sensors that help detect leaks that created detailed maps over six months by gathering millions of readings over hundreds of miles of roadway in densely populated areas including Boston.
The team used algorithms that were refined over several years to assess the data and rank it so PSE&G could replace pipeline faster. The utility was also able to reduce emissions and at the same time it they were able to install 35 percent fewer miles of pipeline.
EDF have also worked with this technology with National Grid in New York.
“Boston’s ordinance is very timely,” said Naim Jonathan Peress the director of Energy and Market Policy at EDF saying that it will be the first time that pushes utility companies to use the most up to date technology to detect gas leaks.
Peress said, “Boston is right on the edge where the first moves are going and that’s good.”
You find a full interactive map of gas leaks in your neighborhood at www.heetma.org.