State’s natural gas lines subject of $500 million update plan
Texas Railroad Commission’s chief wants all of state’s steel lines for natural gas to be replaced with plastic.
Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams proposed Tuesday that the commission require utilities to replace the lines that bring natural gas from pipelines under neighborhood streets to homes.
Texas has at least 525,000 steel lines and perhaps as many as 1 million, he said.
The project could cost more than $500 million, with that possibly being borne by customers.
“It would be the largest replacement program the Railroad Commission has ever done,” Williams said.
The commission took no action at its meeting Tuesday; the industry is study- ing the proposal.
Regulators targeted the service lines after several deadly home explosions.
The problem is that the old service lines are made of rigid steel, which can shift and corrode. Williams said he wants utilities to replace the steel with new plastic lines.
Depending on how the commission might structure an order, the replacements could take as long as 10 years to complete. Creating a rule to require the replacements will take months.
Lori Moreno, a spokeswoman with Texas Gas Service, which serves Austin, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, said the company had not had the same problems that prompted Williams’ proposal.
“We understand pipeline safety is the Railroad Commission’s goal. It’s ours, too,” she said. Moreno said Texas Gas Services just got Williams’ proposal the night before the meeting and could not estimate what the impact might be.
“Our engineering department is assessing how it will impact us,” she said.
It’s unlikely that utilities would be on the hook for the $500 million cost. Utilities typically can charge ratepayers for the cost of new infrastructure, plus a 10 percent profit.
Steel was used for service lines in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
“It’s pipe that probably should have
been removed many years ago, but it definitely needs to be removed now, over the course of the next few years,” said Geoffrey Gay, a lawyer with Lloyd Gosselink who represents a number of North Texas cities in the matter.
In 2006, a Wylie couple died when a natural gas leak ignited their home. In 2007, an explosion in Cleburne killed two women and injured three other family members.
Officials blamed those blasts on leaks at couplings, which are pieces used to join pipes. The commission ordered utilities to replace a particular style of coupling implicated in those explosions.
Last year, a house in Mesquite exploded. The commission told the gas company, Atmos, to stop using steel service lines like the one at the home. Atmos decided to replace each of the 680 lines in the subdivision.
Williams said it would take years to replace all of the steel service lines.
Williams said he will propose requiring utilities to replace lines in the leakiest areas within two years. That includes cities where leaks are detected at 25 percent or more of the structures served by the natu- ral gas utility, he said.
The utilities would have to replace 10 percent of the steel lines every year in cities with leaks in 5 to 25 percent of structures.
Steel lines in cities with leaks in less than 5 percent of the structures would have to be replaced if the utility runs across a leak.
If the other commissioners agree to the proposal — and Williams said he will give them at least a couple of weeks before asking them to vote — writing and implementing the rule would take months.
Utilities, cities and customers would get 60 days to comment on the proposal. The commission sometimes holds town hall meetings to gather opinions on a new rule, which could lengthen the time.
Even though some houses have had explosions, Williams said the safety issue with the service lines isn’t so severe that they must be replaced immediately.
“It’s just important to replace the infrastructure,” Williams said. “Just as we need to do repairs to roads and bridges and highways, we have to do repairs to service lines.”