Viewpoints: California leads the way on stopping gas pipeline leaks

David Johnson had two gas leaks on his Davis property.
David Johnson had two gas leaks on his Davis property.

There are more than 1 million miles of pipe that carry trillions of cubic feet of natural gas to America’s homes, businesses, factories and farms each year. We depend on the reliable delivery of natural gas, but too often in recent years we have had explosions and leaks that harm our communities, degrade the environment and contribute significantly to global warming.

Thirty-seven states have programs to speed up repairs and replacement of problem sections of the gas distribution system. Most recently, California enacted a leak mitigation approach from which the whole country can take a lesson.

Part of the climate change package signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month is a law to require a significant reduction in pipeline leaks. Senate Bill 1371 was sponsored by the Utility Workers Union of America. California’s natural gas pipeline system is vast – more than 100,000 miles of pipe running through the state. Without proper attention to safety and integrity, it is dangerous. The September 2010 explosion in San Bruno showed the need to protect the public from leaks that pose an imminent danger.

The new law addresses both safety and that other insidious threat from natural gas – methane emissions. California is leading the nation in addressing climate change, but methane leaks could undo many of the benefits of AB 32, the state’s landmark global warming law. Natural gas is primarily methane, a greenhouse gas estimated to be more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over 20 years.

To address this problem, organized labor and major environmental groups in California joined forces to support SB 1371 to develop a comprehensive long-term strategy to prevent leaks and quickly find and fix leaks in existing pipelines. The result should be a transparent proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission to find best practices, identify measures and emerging technologies, and improve the integrity of the system. All knowledgeable voices – managers, workers, technicians, public safety professionals and consumers – should be heard.

Another thing the legislation got right was assuring an adequate workforce to administer the best ways to operate and maintain the system. Too often we make the mistake of overlooking how operations can be degraded by a downsized workforce whose skills haven’t been kept up to date. The law shows how an inclusive, comprehensive approach can be developed to repair facilities and operate them optimally.

Preventing and fixing these leaks will not break the bank. Low-cost, effective strategies to identify and repair leaking distribution pipes are available, and this law allows utility companies the flexibility to “reduce pipeline emissions of natural gas to the greatest extent technically feasible.”

The new law ensures that we can improve the safety and integrity of our pipelines, reduce methane emissions that contribute to climate change, and create and maintain family-sustaining jobs for workers. It’s a win-win-win proposition for the state of California, and it’s a model for other states across the country.

Mike Langford is president of the Utility Workers Union of America. Kim Glas is executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a national coalition of major labor unions and environmental groups.