There are tens of thousands of leaks in the vast web of natural gas pipes snaking across the commonwealth. Just how much gas is being lost, however, and how much the leaks are costing customers, is more of a mystery. And even in the wake of last year’s Merrimack Valley gas explosion, there is no place for residents to get an easily accessible, easy-to-understand accounting of the number and severity of leaks statewide.
“Nobody really knows how much gas is lost from leaks, some of which are really gushing,” Audrey Schulman, executive director of the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a Boston-based nonprofit, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade. “Right now, utilities are doing it their own way, so we don’t know how big the problems are or where to put resources toward fixing them.”
That could change as soon as next year, if the state adopts a set of proposed regulations that would require private and municipal utilities to report leaks in uniform, transparent way. The rules, which will have a public hearing before the Department of Public Utilities next Thursday, would require companies to report how much gas is lost, why it is lost, and how much it is costing customers.
It’s a long overdue step that makes sense for several reasons:
It gives consumers a ballpark idea of how much they are paying for the leaks. Utility companies pass the cost of escaped gas on to consumers. By one Harvard University estimate, that cost totals roughly $90 million a year.
It gives the public an idea of how widespread the problem is. Massachusetts utilities reported more than 34,000 gas leaks in 2017; about 7,500 of those were classified as serious enough to require immediate attention. Under the current system, however, it is difficult to truly trust those numbers. As Schulman noted, the utilities “estimate the lost gas using methods they don’t explain and that can vary from company to company.”
A recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling that dinged the Baker administration for not doing enough to reduce carbon emissions statewide pointed to gas leaks as a major contributor.
“Not only is lost gas expensive for consumers, but it’s also extremely damaging to the environment,” said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, who helped write the legislation.
Requiring that companies report lost gas in a uniform, timely and accessible way won’t solve any of these problems, of course. But it will give regulators and, more importantly, consumers and idea of the scope of the problem and what is being done to address it.