Plugging Gas Leaks

Men repairing gas line

Massachusetts has one of the nation’s oldest natural gas pipeline systems, and it is showing its age.  Old cast iron and steel pipes are especially prone to leaks.  The gas companies reported that more than 16,000 gas leaks remained in our gas pipes at the end of 2015.  These leaks lose more than eight billion cubic feet of natural gas into the air every year – and possibly as much as nineteen billion cubic feet.  That gas is costing ratepayers $50 -$128 million every year. 

Leaks threaten safety, health and the environment. And we pay for it!

  • The main component of natural gas is methane, which is the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.  Methane captures 84 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and 28 times as much over a 100-year period. 
  • Natural gas is harmful to vegetation, kills trees, and forms ozone which affects human health and aggravates allergies and asthma.
  • Yet, gas utilities are allowed to recover the cost of that lost gas through charges to consumers.
  • Repairing the state’s 25,000 gas leaks would cost an estimated $50 million, meaning if unaccounted for gas could be saved and sold, it would pay for all repairs in a year.
  • Replacing old pipe with new reduces operations and maintenance expenses. From a CLF report: "According to the filings of natural gas companies with replacement programs in place, for every mile of leak-prone pipe that they replace, they can reduce repair costs, defined as operations and maintenance expense, by up to $1,761 for bare steel and up to $2,188 for cast iron. Over the course of a year that can add up to $7.5 million in avoided operations and maintenance expenses if that pipeline is replaced with new pipe."

In 2014, the Massachusetts legislature partially addressed this problem by passing “An Act Relative to Natural Gas Leaks”.  That law established a grading system for leaks and requires that dangerous leaks are fixed.  It also requires gas utilities to provide information on the locations of gas leaks.  The reported locations of gas leaks have been mapped for many municipalities in Massachusetts by HEET. See your city or town's gas leak locations here.  The 2014 law did not solve the problem of leaks that are not safety concerns. Currently, gas utilities are not required to repair non-threatening gas leaks – ever!

2016 saw significant further progress toward eliminating gas leaks in Massachusetts.  The passage of bill H.4568, “An Act to promote energy diversity,” opened new possibilities for clean energy in Massachusetts.  It also directed our regulatory agencies to come up with a plan to identify and repair gas leaks that have a “significant environmental impact.”  Another term for gas leaks that have a “significant environmental impact” is “superemitters.”  According to a 2016 study by Boston University, a handful of superemitters (about 7% of all leaks) are responsible for half of the leaked gas.  Repairing these huge leaks can sharply reduce the state’s methane emissions and save ratepayers real money.  We are excited about this focus on the leakiest leaks.

Progress in 2016 was accomplished in no small part due to the outspoken support of communities across Massachusetts.  35 municipalities, representing about a third of the population of Massachusetts, passed resolutions endorsing state action to fix gas leaks, and our legislature got the message.  The municipalities were: Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Cheshire, Concord, Dalton, Fall River, Framingham, Great Barrington, Haverhill, Lexington, Lowell, Malden, Marblehead, Natick, Newton, Northampton, North Adams, Pittsfield, Quincy, Reading, Rockland, Somerville, Springfield, Swampscott, Waltham, Wayland, Wellesley, Weston, Williamstown, and Worcester.

In addition, in December 2016, Boston passed an ordinance that put additional requirements on gas companies when they perform gas leak repairs in Boston.  The ordinance coordinates infrastructure repair, allows for data collection and protects the city's environment and green space. The revised ordinance streamlines the reporting requirement and attaches it to Public Works' permitting authority.  Boston’s ordinance will be an example for action by other municipalities in 2017.

In 2017 much of our focus has moved to working with the regulatory agencies as they respond to the new law.  The Department of Public Utilities (DPU) which regulates the gas distributors and sets the rules for leak identification and repair has issued draft regulations that address the classification and repair timeframes for both leaks that present safety concerns and leaks that have significant environmental impact.  They are expected to publish the final regulations later this year.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is responsible for setting and enforcing goals for greenhouse gas emissions to meet the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act.  The DEP published draft regulations that put limits on methane emissions from leaking natural gas infrastructure.  They are also expected to publish final regulations later this year.

The Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, working with our many allies, have evaluated the draft regulations of both agencies and provided written comments and oral testimony that we believe will focus the regulations to reduce gas leaks.

Looking forward, three new bills related to gas leaks have been introduced in the 2017 legislative session.  All three have been referred to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

  • House bill H.2683, “An Act relative to protecting consumers of gas and electricity from paying for leaked and unaccounted for gas,” sponsored by Rep. Christine Barber [34th Middlesex district] with 80 co-petitioners, and its twin Senate bill S.1845, “An Act relative to protecting consumers of gas and electricity from paying for leaked and unaccounted for gas,” sponsored by Sen. Jamie Eldridge [Middlesex and Worcester] with 31 co-petitioners, preclude Local Distribution Companies (gas companies) from charging customers for unaccounted-for-gas.  These bills are similar to bills submitted in the last legislative session which were not adopted.  However, the issue will get a new look in this session.
  • Senate bill S.1838, “An Act ensuring the safety of residents, first responders, and gas workers,” sponsored by Sen. Sal DiDomenico [Middlesex and Suffolk] with ten co-petitioners ensures that gas shut off valves are working and accessible.  This bill does not reduce gas leakage, but it improves the safety of those who are working on repairs.

Contact our Gas Leaks Lead David Zeek for more information.


January 2017 MACC Letter
August 19, 2016 Investigative Report by WCVB Channel 5 News
March 2, 2016 "Who Pays for Gas Leaks?" video by Salem Alliance for the Environment
WBUR February 29, 2016 "In Mass., Many Small Gas Leaks Add Up To Big Consequences for the Environment" (featuring Mass Sierra Club Exec. Committee member Nathan Phillips)
Town of Weston Resolution in favor of H.2870 and H.2871

Feb. 23, 2016 Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay Letter to Boston State Reps re Gas Leaks Legislation
Town of Wellesley Resolution in favor of H. 2870 & 2871
Town of Arlington Resolution in favor of H.2871
Town of Arlington Resolution in favor of H.2870
An Act relative to protecting consumers of gas and electricity from paying for leaked and unaccounted for gas (Massachusetts House)
An Act Relative to Gas Leak Repairs During Road Projects (Massachusetts House)
City of Waltham Resolution in favor of H.2870
Power Point re Arlington Gas Leaks
Power Point re Wellesley Gas Leaks
September 9, 2015 USA Today "Scientists: Replacing old gas pipes reduces leaks"
January 22, 2015 Boston Globe “Leaks in Boston area gas pipes exceed estimates
March 2014 Understanding the Impact of Natural Gas Leaks on Public Safety, the Environment and Your Wallet (CLF)
December 2014 "Methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure and use in the urban region of Boston, Massachusetts"
December 23, 2014 Report on Lost and Unaccounted for Gas (MA Dept. of Public Utilities)
August 2013 America Pays for Gas Leaks (Sen. Ed Markey)
November 2012 Into Thin Air (CLF)