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New Mass. law aims to speed repairs to gas leaks

Plan sets timetable to repair lines; customers to see savings in long run

A blueprint to speed repairs to thousands of leaks in natural gas pipelines across the state — reducing the threat of explosions and eventually saving consumers millions of dollars — will be unveiled Monday in Springfield.

The effort, authorized by recently passed legislation, creates a uniform system that classifies the severity of leaks and sets a timeline for their repair based on the risks. It also allows utilities to more quickly recover the costs of repairs from customers in the form of higher rates.

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Those repairs could add an estimated $1 to $2 a month to the average gas bill, industry officials say. But over the longer term, Massachusetts customers could save tens of millions of dollars a year once all gas leaks are repaired. That’s because they will no longer have to pay for gas lost to those leaks.

Local utilities respond to tens of thousands of calls about potential gas leaks each year and reported more than 25,000 leaks to regulators at the end of September.

“As this flammable gas travels under our feet in often archaic pipes, I’m thrilled we are compelling gas companies to track their known leaks in a more transparent and uniform way,” said state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Democrat from Marblehead who has long pushed to repair gas leaks. “The stakes are too high.”

Natural gas explosions, including one in April that injured 11 people in Dorchester, have called attention to the problem, but the issue has gathered momentum as researchers have quantified the amount of gas lost from thousands of small leaks in aging pipelines, and the costs — to customers and the environment.

A federal study commissioned by Senator Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, shows that in Massachusetts alone, natural gas consumers paid up to $1.5 billion from 2000 to 2011 for gas that never made it to them because of leaks. In addition, natural gas used to heat homes is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Several legislators filed gas leak bills this session. Industry and environmentalists worked with local political leaders to craft a compromise version passed by the Legislature and approved by Patrick on June 26. The law also requires utilities to fix all but the least hazardous of leaks whenever road construction projects expose a pipeline and to give priority to leaks within 50 feet of a school.

Earlier versions of the bill went further, requiring, for instance, that all leaks be repaired during road construction and giving priority to places of public assembly, such as churches and hospitals, not just schools.

Despite the changes, lawmakers said it achieves most of their goals. State Representative John D. Keenan, a Salem Democrat who also filed a gas leaks repair bill, called the new law a “great success.”

Utilities said the law not only allows them to repair leaks faster and recover costs in a timely manner but also has provisions that will allow them to bring natural gas service to more Massachusetts residents. Natural gas in recent years has been significantly cheaper than heating oil.

“This will allow us to accelerate the replacement of aging infrastructure,” said Thomas M. Kiley, chief executive of the Northeast Gas Association, a Needham-based industry group that represents gas utilities. “The bottom line is that there are going to be less leaks going forward.”

On Monday, Patrick will join state officials for an event publicizing the law in Springfield, where a natural gas explosion leveled a club in 2012 and injured more than a dozen. The State Fire Marshal said a worker from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts accidentally punctured a high pressure gas line at the foundation of the building while investigating a gas odor.

Markey is pushing two bills at the federal level. One, similar to the Massachusetts law, aims to revamp pipeline development and repair policies to address the biggest leaks first while making it easier for utilities to recover their costs. The other would create a program to help finance such projects with federal money and matching funds from states.

Markey said the new state law is a precursor to his national plan. “Massachusetts is yet again leading the way for the nation on energy and climate change,” he said.

Related:

Gas leaks cost consumers $1.5 b, study says

Environmental group mapping gas leaks across Mass.

House passes bill to fix gas pipelines

Gas leak suspected after 12 hurt in Dorchester home explosion

Erin Ailworth can be reached at erin.ailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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