The state Department of Public Utilities on Wednesday lifted the moratorium on natural gas work in National Grid’s territory, a move that could provide a boost to developers whose projects have been stalled for months.
But don’t expect the floodgates to open right away. The state agency has issued a directive requiring that all pipeline work by National Grid crews receive a certified professional engineer’s stamp of approval. The order also requires that the utility’s employees have certain levels of experience to work on gas lines, ranging from five years for low-pressure lines to 15 years for high-pressure lines. And it will force the company to make daily reports about the number of inspectors present at each location where it is working on gas pipelines.
The agency imposed the moratorium on Oct. 8, limiting all gas jobs by National Grid in the 116 cities and towns where it provides gas service to just emergency and compliance work, after an overpressurization incident in Woburn. No one was injured, but state regulators were already on high alert after too much pressure caused a series of devastating fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley along Columbia Gas lines in September. A separate state moratorium imposed on Columbia Gas remains in effect.
After the Columbia Gas debacle, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Massachusetts require professional engineers to sign off on utility gas work in the state. Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has since filed legislation that would make such a requirement state law, but the bill isn’t moving through the Legislature as quickly as the administration would like.
Gas hookups had already slowed down considerably in National Grid’s territory because of a work lockout affecting some 1,250 union employees that began in June in 85 communities. That lockout continues, although the company says it remains hopeful about reaching a resolution by Christmas with the two steelworkers locals that represent the workers.
The effect on the local economy has been significant, with projects ranging in size from single-family homes to warehouses to apartment complexes held up because builders and developers were unable to schedule gas hookups. Many resorted to diesel generators and propane tanks as pricey backup measures.
Tamara Small of NAIOP Massachusetts, a real estate trade group, said her members will be pleased that the moratorium has been lifted, but she worries about the availability of qualified gas workers.
“There is no doubt that lifting the moratorium will have an impact,” Small said. “We certainly hope that economic development projects that had been waiting for so many months can now move forward. . . . That being said, we are concerned there may not be an adequate workforce to address the significant backlog.”
Small said she is hearing that some projects could take up to two years to get gas connections. For that reason, she said the Department of Public Utilities should require National Grid to hire additional crews to catch up. “This is the definition of an emergency,” Small said.
National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan said the company is reviewing the department’s directive and will work with the agency to understand the full scope.
“We know we have current and hopeful customers that are awaiting gas service, and we apologize for delays,” Milligan said. “We will not be performing new service connection work in Massachusetts at least until we are able to validate with the DPU that we are correctly interpreting the new requirements.”
Complicating matters, many cities and towns have moratoriums on new service connections during the winter months, and some imposed moratoriums for the duration of the National Grid lockout.
To many union workers, the lifting of the moratorium was a big disappointment. John Buonopane, president of the United Steelworkers Local 12012, said Governor Charlie Baker had indicated that the moratorium should remain in place until the lockout is over. Union workers have peppered the Department of Public Utilities with safety complaints regarding work done by replacement employees.
“It’s very frustrating,” Buonopane said. “If they’re going to operate safely, they shouldn’t be allowed” to restart work until the lockout is over.
Buonopane said National Grid simply doesn’t have the crews to make much of a dent in the backlog, particularly without the union workers back on the job.
“People think that now this moratorium is lifted, they’re going to get their gas back on,” Buonopane said. “That’s just not going to be the case. They just don’t have the resources.”