Gas pipelines in Connecticut leak at a much higher rate than is admitted by the companies who own them, and the environmental community is increasingly troubled by government appointed regulators who deny these leaks, and try to pretend away a serious and growing problem.
Natural gas is 97% methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and pollutant. Methane is over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at causing global heating, which means that transport and use of methane in Connecticut is contributing to worsening climate disruption.
What is of most immediate concern for residents is the negative public health impacts that are caused by leaking methane. Methane contributes to ozone smog, which is a major contributor to asthma, and is linked to other respiratory diseases and increased risk of cancers. The gas is fracked from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and includes other components in addition to methane. Some of these components are volatile organic compounds, which lead to the formation of ground level ozone smog that can trigger asthma, impair lung function and exacerbate emphysema and other pre-existing respiratory diseases. One of these is Benzene, which is linked to cancers, respiratory illnesses, and birth defects; Ethylbenzene is linked to neurological and blood disorders (both benzene and ethylbenzene are constituents of raw geothermic gas); and lastly, Formaldehyde is linked to some cancers and respiratory disease. All these components and methane are leaked in substantial amounts from compressor stations that service the main gas pipelines through the state of Connecticut.
PURA (Public Utilities Regulatory Authority) is responsible for intrastate gas pipeline safety oversight, and is authorized by the Federal Department of Transportation/Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration/Office of Pipeline Safety to monitor interstate pipeline safety. PURA claims that it records and monitors all leaks that are reported to it. PURA claims that Eversource and Iberdrola/UI check their pipelines, but those checks are done electronically and remotely, and underestimate the true number of leaks. The electric and gas monopolies Eversource and Iberdrola/UI never do the type of objective study that was undertaken by the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club.
In order to determine the number and estimate the size of methane leaks in the city of Hartford, a group of scientists sponsored by the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club conducted a mobile methane leak survey on all public streets of Hartford, from February 25 through March 31, 2016. This survey replicated studies previously conducted in Boston and elsewhere. This study found approximately six times more leaks in five weeks than found during the entire year of 2016 by PURA (only Grade 1 and Grade 2 leak level data were available, not Grade 3, which was not reported). (Figure 1)
The smaller, more frequent and numerous leaks, albeit perhaps of lower severity, are also problematic because: a) smaller leaks can progress into larger ones and may not “fix themselves” (a quote from PURA), b) accumulated smaller leaks waste product similar to or greater than, bigger leaks, and c) more distributed smaller leaks cause more human and environmental health risk and harm.
According to data analytics expert Tim Keyes, Ph.D. of Evergreen Business Analytics LLC. and Gale Ridge, Ph.D., a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, “The approach being described is a proactive alternative to PURA’s approach which is reactive. The CT Sierra Club study scientifically identified leaks using vehicle mounted sensing equipment, while PURA’s approach is to depend on after-the fact voluntary human reporting. Considering how easy testing equipment can be mobilized, a proactive approach is superior in terms of public health, environmental protection, and long-term cost-benefits to both the State of Connecticut and gas companies. PURA, suppliers, and operators should not be threatened with the work done by the Sierra Club. The intention is to help improve gas system-wide performance, and enhance public understanding of how it might be monitored and managed, relative to product waste (methane lost). Ultimately, this is PURA’s responsibility as an agent of public trust. Furthermore, the approach PURA uses to gather data is incomplete and not sufficiently transparent: Grade 3 leaks are not reported, and neither is the volume of each leak in their public records. There were 100 Grade 2 and 24 Grade 1 leaks in 2016. Generally speaking, the lower the Grade number, the greater propensity for an explosion. PURA should use an approach which transparently measures and manages all system defects, from small to large, on a proactive basis, taking into account both the frequency and severity of leaks, using established risk management procedures.” (For display of all Grade 1 and Grade 2 leaks found by PURA in the 2011-2016 time frame, see Figure 2 at the end.)
Methane leaks have negative public health and climate impacts, which translates to negative economic impacts on the state. Ratepayers are forced to pay for gas leaks under a 2014 law, Public Act 14-152, so gas companies are rewarded for leaking and are not incentivized to repair leaks. Additionally, ratepayers are forced to subsidize intrastate gas pipeline expansion and may pay for future interstate gas pipeline construction, although gas pipeline companies are private, for-profit, shareholder driven businesses. For these reasons, legislators have been attempting to introduce bills for two years that would force repair of gas leaks, and remove the gas pipeline tax.
State Senator Ted Kennedy introduced Senate Bill 346, An Act Concerning the Threshold For Investigating The Lost And Unaccounted For Gas Of A Gas Company. “It is unbelievable to me, in the face of enormous consumer energy costs and the skyrocketing rate of greenhouse gas emissions, that current Connecticut law permits gas utility companies to avoid fixing their pipelines,” said Senator Kennedy. “By allowing such a high rate of gas to leak before utilities are required to make repairs, and by permitting the gas companies to simply pass on the cost of leaked gas to ratepayers, there is absolutely no financial incentive for gas companies to proactively search out leaks and repair their gas lines. For the sake of our planet and in fairness to ratepayers, we have to reduce PURA’s maximum allowable leakage rate from 3% to a very reasonable 1%.”
State Representative Chris Rosario introduced an amendment to House Bill 5343, An Act Concerning Fines Ordered By PURA…For Calculating Lost And Unaccounted For Gas, which would remove the onerous financial burden on ratepayers to build new and enlarged gas pipelines. Rep. Rosario stated, “My constituents pay a high percentage of their income for energy, and energy costs in Connecticut have risen significantly in recent years. This gas expansion plan was supposed to save ratepayers money but it’s had the opposite effect. Construction of gas infrastructure such as pipelines, compressor stations, and gas power plants has raised energy prices for consumers, at the same time as the gas expansion has created more methane emissions in the atmosphere, harming our climate and constituents’ health.”
But instead of insuring gas leaks are repaired, PURA is pushing back on legislative attempts to address this serious public health and environmental problem. Chair of PURA Katie Dykes opposes the bill to lower the methane leak threshold, because the bill would “take away from… the natural gas companies the flexibility they currently have to prioritize and respond to Class 1, 2 and 3 natural gas leaks based on the level of severity.” This statement avoids admitting the truth, that many leaks, if not most, are not repaired by the gas companies and PURA doesn’t demand repair. Furthermore, PURA fails entirely to acknowledge that methane is a public health and climate risk in addition to the risk of explosion.
Once upon a time, people were tortured or burned for stating the obvious: the earth circles the sun, or the earth is round. Today, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has attempted to suppress science regarding climate disruption and the impact of air pollution. We are living at a terrifying moment in history when public entities deny scientific truths and public regulators defend corporate rights to pollute over the welfare of the people. Hopefully, we can do better in Connecticut.