BOSTON — The natural gas industry and some of the state’s largest utilities are pushing back against proposed safety regulations prompted in part by the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.
The proposed rules, unveiled by state Department of Public Utilities last year, call for updating the state’s gas distribution, storage and transportation codes to improve gas safety and help meet the state’s ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But the gas industry is pushing back against some of the proposed rules, set to be implemented over the next two years, with some calling for a delay in the regulations.
In testimony to the DPU, utilities, gas distribution companies and industry groups all said they support pipeline safety but raised a number of concerns about the proposed regulations running the gamut from gas monitoring and safety devices, the burial of transmission lines and worker qualifications.
The gas industry groups ask DPU regulators to meet with them to conduct “technical sessions” to hash out issues with the proposed regulations before they are implemented.
Increased monitoring of gas work was one recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas disaster. Investigators found that the event had been preceded by years of glaring mistakes by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, including shoddy record keeping, a lack of oversight and procedures for dealing with emergencies.
Then-Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers pushed through a series of statewide gas safety measures in response to the investigation, including a requirement that certified engineers review plans for major gas projects.
Congress approved the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, named after the Lawrence teen killed in the Sept. 13, 2018, Merrimack Valley gas disaster, which calls for other safety measures such as the instillation of pressure monitoring devices.
But state regulators determined additional requirements were needed to improve gas safety and meet the requirements of a climate change bill approved last year, which requires the state to reduce its emissions to “net-zero” of 1990 levels by 2050.
The DPU’s proposed rules would require utilities to take a number of steps to protect hundreds of miles of gas distribution systems from overpressure events, including the installation of “slam shut” devices at gas distribution stations throughout the state.
Federal investigators determined that a swell of over-pressurized gas through lines beneath Lawrence, Andover and North Andover fueled the Merrimack Valley gas fires, destroying homes, damaging properties and forcing the evacuations of 50,000 people.
But Jose Costa, president of the Northeast Gas Association, said completing these retrofits within a two-year timeframe will be “extremely challenging if not impossible” given the significant number of regulator stations operated by gas companies.
“Requiring this additional layer of protection for all existing distribution stations will be challenging for operators and is likely to impact their ability to comply with proposed regulation,” he wrote in testimony.
The companies would also be required to establish procedures to require that senior personnel to “immediately respond” to the location of any overpressure event.
Utilities would be subject to new reporting and disclosure requirements about the integrity of their gas distribution system and would also need to conduct more regular testing of gas lines to identify safety issues.
Other proposed gas safety rules would require companies to ensure that technicians working on gas projects are “qualified” to perform the tasks they have been assigned and review their safety records.
Some workers, such as welders, will need to be re-certified under new regulations.
“This provision will increase safety by ensuring that only qualified individuals are performing potentially dangerous tasks,” DPU chairman Matthew Nelson wrote in the order.
But local gas distribution companies, including National Grid and Eversource, wrote in testimony that those requirements would provide “little or no actual safety value” while inhibiting “the ability to take advantage of practical work experience under the direct supervision of a qualified individual.”
“These changes will likely result in union and contractor negotiation issues, and will place significant and unjustifiable burdens on the LDCs,” the companies wrote.
Meanwhile, gas industry officials are seeking to delay implementation of the state’s regulations until federal regulators complete rules to implement the Leonel Rondon Act.
The American Public Gas Association, which says it supports many of the gas safety proposals, raised concerns that preceding the federal rule-making process may ultimately “cause confusion” for Massachusetts gas distribution pipeline operators.
“While state pipeline safety regulations supersede federal regulations if deemed more stringent, when the federal and state rule-making processes are happening in parallel, it can cause significant confusion for the regulated entities,” the group wrote in testimony.
Still, the proposed rules are backed by the New England Gas Workers Alliance, which represents unionized gas workers and pipe fitters.
In testimony to the DPU, the group said the regulations are “long overdue” and would “improve occupational, public and pipeline safety.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.