California Looks to Modernize Natural Gas Utilities, Presents a National Model

Methane leaking from pipes before natural gas is delivered to customers can have a large, harmful impact on the climate.  This idea was first brought to light in a major scientific paper published in 2012, and supported by numerous papers since.  For California, a climate leader, and a state that consumes 10 percent of the nation’s natural gas supply – this leakage epiphany was and continues to be a very big deal.

Last week, after years of science, politics, and policy deliberations, the state took one of its boldest steps yet in the quest to cut methane escaping from its vast network of aging pipes underneath city streets – a move that should result in a new direction for California, and likely for utilities across the nation.

That move, taking the form of a 28-page report and staff recommendations from California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) as part of the implementation of a 2014 law (SB 1371), proposes to require utilities in California to use specific best practices to find, fix, and prevent leaks from the natural gas distribution system.

Bringing local gas utilities to the 21st century

These recommendations, if adopted and implemented, would make huge strides in improving how California’s utilities and storage providers manage natural gas. It would also bring all of these companies up to modern standards, instead of having only some companies taking leading positions.

Utilities are already required to report how many leaks they have on their systems, and tell lawmakers how they spend the money they receive to upgrade and fix pipes. However, with this report and recommendations the CPUC is proposing to change the business as usual culture and overall operating practices – something utility commissions in other states will likely take note of.

For example, it recently came to light that when utilities find a leak, if the leak doesn’t present an immediate public safety concern (read fire or explosion) there is no requirement to fix the leak.  As a result, utilities routinely track thousands of leaks, some that are quite large, for decades at a time, stopping short of repairing the leaks when fixes are often easy and cost-effective.

Now the CPUC is proposing a sensible tectonic shift in this policy: when you find a leak, you fix it. Additionally, utilities will have until October 1, 2018 to eliminate much of their backlogs of unrepaired leaks.

Adopting sensors and other best practices

Another major change involves leak detection and public awareness, something EDF has been doing in partnership with Colorado State University using Google street view cars outfitted with vehicle mounted methane sensors.

Although PG&E has been engaging in a major deployment of vehicle mounted methane sensors with unquestioned success – SoCalGas, the utility in Southern California responsible for the Aliso Canyon leak, has resisted using similar technology. Similarly, although SoCalGas and SDG&E have on-line maps of the leaks they find, PG&E has yet to do the same.

Now, the CPUC is proposing to require all utilities to engage in the best proven practices – like mobile mounted methane sensors and online leak maps – as opposed to letting utilities pick and choose their own without rigorous oversite. Additionally, utilities may be required to conduct leak surveys of gas systems every three years instead of every five years; install new stationary methane detection devices at certain sites; and list how many leaks they have by zip code or other metric, as opposed to system wide.

Changing company culture to take methane seriously

Like building a house, individual components are only as effective as the sturdiness of the foundation.  For this reason, the CPUC recommendation is proposing to require changes to company policies that establish the basic framing of methane leaks and the importance of prevention.

Specifically, if adopted, companies will be required to state that methane is a potent greenhouse gas that must be prevented from escaping to the atmosphere, that non-emergency venting to the atmosphere is only permitted after significant specified  steps are taken, and that worker training programs on why it is important to reduce and/or eliminate methane emissions are required.

Taken together with inspection, maintenance and repair provisions, it appears the CPUC is shooting for a full overhaul of the utility leak practices for climate purposes – in addition to safety.

A giant step

While last week’s announcement is a sign of major progress for cleaner air and safer communities, there is more work to do to further strengthen and defend the state’s response to methane leaks. For example, while these recommendations state that leaks above a certain size must be repaired, they do not explicitly require utilities to fix their largest leaks first – another common sense provision. That’s why we will continue to support these recommendations and argue for stronger and clearer rules throughout the remainder of the rulemaking period.

About two weeks ago, 3,177 people sent a letter to the President of the CPUC urging him to ensure the agency adopted strong mandatory standards to control methane pollution. With last week’s release, these 3,177 people, can be sure their voices and concerns are heard.  Now, the staff recommendations must be put into action to fulfill the promise of SB 1371 to protect the environment and public health for all Californians, and set a model for reshaping the national conversation on responsible leak management.

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