Massachusetts will have to consider rethinking its natural gas infrastructure, said applied research economist Dorie Seavey, the co-host of a Newton Free Library event Thursday night.
“The most glaring fact remains that, according to climate scientists, we’re supposed to be decommissioning our fossil fuel infrastructure,” Seavey said.
The library, Green Newton, and Newton Mothers Out Front co-sponsored an online discussion about fixing gas leaks and transitioning to clean-energy alternatives with the Massachusetts-based energy advocacy group Gas Transition Allies.
Green Newton and Newton Mothers Out Front are local organizations that promote care for the environment.
“We did our first study in 2013 in the City of Boston that found over 3,000 leaks of gas,” said lecture co-host Nathan Phillips, a professor at Boston University.
This research spurred several years of advocacy work primarily concerned with the danger that gas leaks pose to public health, safety, and the environment, he said.
This year, the organization pivoted from promoting gas leak remedies to strategies for transitioning away from gas entirely. Seavey described the current condition of gas infrastructure and related state-level policies.
“In Massachusetts and five other states that have old gas distribution systems, we’re proceeding with wholesale replacement of the gas distribution system,” Seavey said. “The replacement is accelerated under a state program called GSEP, with 100 percent of the costs borne by gas customers.”
Seavey explained that when gas companies determine that a pipe is prone to leaks, the gas system enhancement plan (GSEP) allows for the removal and replacement of that pipe, and charges on customers’ gas bills cover the costs. Seavey’s research found that the total cost of the infrastructure project now amounts to nearly $40 billion.
Newton is no exception to statewide reliance on old gas distribution systems. Newton’s main gas pipeline is about 305 miles long and is chiefly constructed from leak-prone materials such as cast iron, unprotected steel, and vintage plastic, according to Phillips.
While GSEP is supposed to work toward safety, reliability, and reducing emissions, it has more recently been directed toward preparing gas distribution systems for carrying alternative fuels such as hydrogen, Seavy said.
“The other notable thing is that National Grid is petitioning to extend [the replacement timeline] again,” Seavey said. “Its last deadline was 2039. Now, it’s going to be asking the Department of Public Utilities to be able to extend that until 2044, which is just six years before 2050, when we’re supposed to be net zero in the Commonwealth.”
The Gas Transition Allies have suggested targeted repairs to leak-prone pipes, but gas companies often say that replacement is more cost-efficient. Phillips said replacing pipes is often a highly disruptive process that involves uprooting paved streets.
The group has also engaged in research, public education, and policy advocacy urging the state legislature and the governor to phase the gas distribution system out of service and transition to electrification or geothermal energy.
Seavey raised the example of California’s development of decommissioning criteria and highlighted the different focus areas the state could take when establishing such criteria, such as emphasizing work in communities with disparate access to energy sources as a push for environmental justice.
“Strategic decommissioning is something to really pay attention to and think about how one could do that efficiently,” Seavey said. “Groups in Newton could help the city identify these segments of pipes and help through local education and organizing, creating an aggregate demand for this change.”