Houston praised, some others panned, for gas pipeline maintenance

Campaigning for the acceleration of repairs to the nation’s aging natural gas utility pipelines, labor unions and environmentalists say expediting the replacement schedule would boost the economy and curb the amount of pollution emitted into the air each year.

“We believe America doesn’t have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment,” said Kim Glas, the executive director of BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations that released a report on pipelines Thursday. “We can and will have both.”

The group had some good words for Houston, noting that the oldest, most leak-prone pipeline typically runs through major metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York and Chicago, but that Houston has made good progress on repairs.

“The research we’ve done shows Houston has done a fantastic job of getting rid of their cast-iron pipes,” said Dave Barnett, special representative for the pipeline and gas distribution department for the United Association Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States, Canada and Australia. “It’s one of the cities in the U.S. we could look up to.”

But nationwide, the alliance reported, the current pace of repairs will require 30 years to replace 112,000 miles of leak-prone pipeline made from cast iron and unprotected steel that dates back in some cases to World War II.

“More than half the pipeline infrastructure qualifies for Medicare, it’s that old and that leaky,” said Leo Gerard, international president for the United Steelworkers, an alliance member.

Compressing the repair schedule to 10 years would have sweeping economic and environmental benefits, the group argued, pointing to the report’s data showing that such a move would create 313,000 new jobs, save consumers $1.5 billion in lost gas charges and prevent the emission of 81 million metric tons of methane, the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road for a year, according to the report.

“The sooner we repair our nation’s urban gas pipeline infrastructure and eliminate the rampant methane leaks, the greater the benefit to American’s health, air, water and climate,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Methane dissipates more quickly that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but is 21 times more potent and has been blamed for contributing to climate change. Identifying methane leaks has become a key focus for federal regulators, environmentalists and the gas industry.

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The alliance stopped short of proposing a formal plan to speed up repairs Thursday but said any such movement needs to be a joint effort between private industry and government, including federal, state and municipal officials.

“There is no single piece of legislation we’re looking for,” Brune said.

Alliance members expressed frustration  that national efforts to improve the nation’s infrastructure have been thwarted by political gridlock.

“I think it’s a complete travesty the rebuilding of America’s infrastructure — whether it’s pipeline infrastructure or any other infrastructure — is caught in the grips of irrational partisan debate,” Gerard said.