All it takes is a gigantic explosion at a strip club, and suddenly the underappreciated world of gas infrastructure is getting the attention it deserves. Miraculously, the Nov. 23 blast at Scores Gentleman’s Club in Springfield didn’t kill anyone. But the explosion, which is still being investigated, injured at least 19 people, damaged many buildings, and was a reminder of a danger that is usually hidden from sight.
Massachusetts has 21,000 miles of gas distribution pipes, a network that includes some of the oldest and leakiest mains in the nation. About a third are made of antiquated cast iron or unprotected steel. Those pipes are leaking gas at an alarming rate: A recent study found 3,300 gas leaks just in Boston. Utilities quickly fix leaks they know about, but many go unnoticed. In the Commonwealth as a whole, the rate of “losses and unaccounted for” gas was more than twice the national average in 2010.
Gas leaks cost money — at least $38.8 million annually, according to the Conservation Law Foundation — and spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. About 4 percent of Massachusetts greenhouse gas emissions come just from unaccounted-for gas. At a time when the state is looking to decrease its greenhouse gas output, gas leaks are surely one of the lowest-hanging fruits.
In addition to responding to leaks, companies are already replacing some aging mains with new plastic pipe. But state regulators should push them to move quicker. The Conservation Law Foundation’s report proposed several further regulatory changes that would speed up the process. One that stands out in particular: Energy companies shouldn’t be able to pass along the costs of lost gas to ratepayers, a widespread industry practice that is outdated in the era of climate change. In New York state, regulators set a leakage benchmark, and penalized utilities that didn’t reach it. According to the Energy Information Administration, the gas leakage rate in New York was lower than in Massachusetts — 1.8 percent versus 2.8 percent.
Preventing gas leaks is primarily a political and economic challenge, not a technological one. Gas companies know how to reduce leaks. They just need a push to do it faster.