By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- Legislation to tamp down subterranean natural gas leaks cleared a powerful House committee Monday without the inclusion of a controversial measure smoothing the way for a proposed Salem power plant.

A completed House Ways and Means Committee poll showed unanimous support for a bill (H 3765) that requires utility companies to make repairs to their natural gas pipes according to a schedule of severity and encourages expansion of natural gas.

A previous version of the bill approved by the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy included a provision that would have finalized permits awarded to Footprint Power in Salem, stymying efforts by the Conservation Law Foundation to appeal.

Rep. John Keenan, a Salem Democrat and chairman of the utilities committee, has said the natural gas plant will be an economic driver for the city and provide needed electricity - though he dropped his push for permitting language after the Supreme Judicial Court said it would expedite the appeal process.

"Given the obstacles this legislation has had to overcome, I'm thrilled the bill is emerging without the encumbrance of an unrelated rider," said Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat, long opposed to the power plant to her south. In an email, she said, "Leaking gas pipes are a real hazard to people, property, the environment, and to the wallets of gas customers in Massachusetts.


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The bill "codifies" and standardizes utility companies' response toward leaking gas lines, said Keenan. Leaks can poison the roots of nearby plants and in the most extreme cases can cause explosions, and Keenan said the gas is also a harmful "greenhouse gas," which contributes to climate change.

"This is a public safety initiative to eliminate leaks in our infrastructure. I would also certainly call it a pro-environment piece in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Keenan, who said the bill would also "take a look at expansion" of the gas network, which would allow for cheaper natural gas to flow to neighborhoods currently relegated to oil or other heating sources.

The bill establishes three levels of leaks: grade one, the most serious leak, which requires immediate repair; grade two, which could create future hazards, and needs repair within 12 months; and grade three, non-hazardous leaks that need to be monitored.

"Each company seemed to have a little bit different standard, not that they weren't repairing these appropriately, but we're just trying to put an industry standard in place," Keenan said.

The bill allows utilities to raise rates, with Department of Public Utilities approval, before a major project "so they can start collecting for the investment prior to actually doing it, which should ultimately save everybody money" and create "certainty," Keenan said.

Companies that run afoul of their obligations could be dealt with by the DPU, Keenan said.

Ehrlich had proposed a more aggressive schedule than Keenan in committee, and sought to highlight the urgency of leaks, saying there are 20,000 known leaks of "flammable natural gas" in the state's network of 21,000 miles of pipe.

The House will meet in a formal session Wednesday to take up a transportation bond bill, where members seek authorization for state spending on local projects. Keenan said he is unsure whether the gas leaks bill would hit the floor Wednesday.

"We're still in discussions with Ways and Means about that," Keenan said.

Salem Harbor Power Station is set to close its coal power operations, and Keenan has sought to clear the way for a natural gas plant, Footprint Power, to take its place.

Keenan has argued that the power plant is an important part of the local economy and necessary for the power grid, warning that grid-operator New England ISO said it would have to use "controlled rolling blackouts" and "trailer-mounted diesel generators" if Footprint isn't built.

"It's a huge piece of the local economy. I mean we're talking about a billion-dollar investment in my community, putting up 30 or 40 acres for other development," Keenan said Monday. He said the coal plant takes up 62 acres and the natural gas plant will take up 17 acres.

After the Supreme Judicial Court decided to expedite CLF's appeals, Keenan agreed to drop the language from the bill that would have finalized permitting decisions.

"The timing for this review has been my concern from the get-go and really the impetus for including this language. Although I am hopeful that an agreement can be reached between the parties, a timely SJC decision on the merits is certainly the next best alternative and I have asked for this language to be withdrawn from the bill," Keenan said in a Dec. 24, 2013 press release.