More than 21,000 miles of aging gas pipelines lie under the streets in Massachusetts, nearly enough to encircle the earth. When researchers began discovering about a decade ago that tens of thousands of leaks across that vast network discharged tons of hazardous methane into the air, the Legislature went to work. A law was passed, and in short order, gas companies embarked on a massive, years-long upgrade.
Since then, the gas companies have slogged through a slow, expensive process of digging up pipes and replacing them with new ones meant to last more than half a century. Costs soared. And something else happened: The state passed a climate law that effectively called for the end of natural gas.
Now, a detailed analysis of the cost and effectiveness of the program, to be released Monday, is raising questions among some experts about whether the program should be modified or even scrapped, potentially allowing money to flow to other climate-related needs.
“The question people need to ask is: The world has changed; does this program really make sense any more given climate change, the fact that we’re moving toward a low-carbon economy, and that the Commonwealth has very aggressive climate mandates?” said Dorie Seavey, an economist who conducted the study on behalf of the advocacy group Gas Leaks Allies, a coalition of scientists, activists, and environmental organizations working to reduce methane emissions from natural gas.
Seavey’s report analyzed records that gas companies are required to file to the state listing repairs they make under the program and the cost. The report found that the price tag of the pipeline replacement program has ballooned to $20 billion, an amount rivaling the Big Dig. According to the report, the program incentivizes replacing pipes over making repairs, which typically cost less and don’t last as long.
Senator Mike Barrett, who reviewed an early copy of the report, called it a watershed analysis that should leave residents wondering: “When do we stop investing in what is essentially as-good-as-new infrastructure, when what we really must be about is walking away from the natural gas enterprise as we know it?”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who in 2020 called on the state to investigate the future of the natural gas industry in light of Massachusetts’ climate goals, said, “The questions raised in this report ... warrant a fresh statewide look at this program.”
In a written response from National Grid, spokesperson Christine Milligan said the company’s top priority is safety, and, as such, it must repair leaks in accordance with the law. She said that replacing leaky pipes, rather than repairing them, offers long-term savings and better safety outcomes because otherwise a pipe will continue to deteriorate, and she questioned whether the $20 billion estimate might be overstated.
“The network of the future is going to look different, and there are several alternatives to explore, which are an important part of the conversation that needs thorough review,” Milligan said. “More immediately important is that any changes to the existing ... program must be evaluated to ensure that they do not increase safety risk.”
Eversource spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman said her company is working with the Commonwealth to meet its climate goals. “But accomplishing these goals will not happen overnight and must be done in tandem with ensuring safe, reliable service for as long as it takes us to realize our shared clean energy future,” she said.
Craig Gilvarg, communications director for the state’s office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said, “The Baker-Polito administration is committed to maintaining the highest level of safety for the Commonwealth’s natural gas system, and will review the report.”
When the program — known as the Gas System Enhancement Program, or GSEP — was enacted, advocates hailed it as a victory for public health and the environment. Pipes, many 50 years old or older, were leaking methane — a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. While there are thousands of leaks, most are small and do not pose an immediate hazard or explosion risk. Across the Commonwealth, people reported that trees in the vicinity of known gas leaks were dying, and if the trees were getting that sick, advocates worried what it could mean for human health.
Amid a public outcry, the legislation easily passed — helped along by the fact that the program cost taxpayers and the gas companies nothing. Rather, it allowed the gas companies — which make most of their money not from the gas they sell but from the fees they charge for piping it to people’s homes — to pass on the costs to customers via a surcharge on their gas bills.
With the new legislation in place, the gas companies set about installing brand new, long-lasting gas mains with a goal of ultimately replacing a third of all pipes in the state. It was a great deal for the companies, said Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Democrat from Marblehead who has been filing legislation related to gas leaks since 2009. “It was like we were trading in their old junk car for a brand new car, and the ratepayer pays,” she said.
But in the intervening years, the science on natural gas’s role in climate change has advanced and the policies enacted by the state have called for nothing short of a transition off of fossil fuels by 2050. That changes the math on pipeline replacement, said Ania Camargo, one of the founders of Gas Leaks Allies. “The fundamental assumptions that created GSEP have changed,” she said.
As the state moves off fossil fuels, gas customers are expected to start making the shift to electricity in droves. What that could result in, the report warns, is the astronomical costs of pipeline replacement being borne by a shrinking customer base — presumably those who can’t afford to make the switch to electricity for heating.
“Who’s left is lower-income families, small businesses, renters — they’re the ones that are still left facing a higher and higher share of fixed costs, paying more and more on their bills for this service,” said Elizabeth Stanton, the director and senior economist at Applied Economics Clinic, which had done a previous analysis of the pipe replacement program.
Meanwhile, according to the report, the gas companies have so far replaced less than 2,000 miles of pipe, leaving 5,300 miles to go — all using pipe designed to last 60 years, decades beyond a time when gas can no longer be used. And while thousands of leaks are repaired annually, Seavey said the pace of replacing pipes is so slow that the program is on track to take far longer than previously expected.
Ann Berwick, who was the chair of the Department of Public Utilities when the program began, called Seavey’s report “superb” and said it pointed to how the paradigm for natural gas in the Commonwealth had changed. “We’re spending all this money on infrastructure that we should be getting rid of when we could be spending the money on programs and infrastructure that we know we need to address climate change, like electrification,” she said.
But, the report says, it’s not as simple as just walking away from the gas pipeline replacement program. The state is still working out how to smoothly transition off fossil fuels, and as it irons out the difficult details of getting residents to electrify their home heating systems, gas pipelines will be needed — and continue to leak.
Critics of the pipe replacement program say there is a good solution.
A 2016 study found that just 7 percent of the leaks in the Greater Boston area are responsible for half of the total methane being emitted. These so-called super-emitters have been targeted for prioritization in past legislation, and advocates say that those leaks must continue to be fixed as quickly as possible.
As the utilities continue addressing the most dangerous leaks, Barrett said the Commonwealth will have to start making some tough decisions. “Now we have to really pick our spots where we’re going to walk away from the leak repairs, except in truly dire situations, in order to redirect our limited capital resources to getting off fossil fuels pretty much all together,” he said.
One possible solution, he said, would be an opt-out program that allowed whole communities to forgo natural gas and let pipe networks in their area be shut down.
As advocates and legislators push for a strong look at the program, Zeyneb Magavi, co-executive director of HEET, a Cambridge nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency, said that the aftermath of this report may represent an opportunity. “I really think we might have an opportunity in this to create some kind of more nuanced plan that directs some investment to new carbon free infrastructure,” she said.