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Is BGE fixing its aging underground gas lines fast enough? | COMMENTARY

Workers continue to assess the scene in Baltimore's Reisterstown Station neighborhood a day after gas explosion leveled three homes Monday morning. No cause has been determined but the tragedy raises questions about whether the city's leaking pipelines are being replaced fast enough.
Workers continue to assess the scene in Baltimore's Reisterstown Station neighborhood a day after gas explosion leveled three homes Monday morning. No cause has been determined but the tragedy raises questions about whether the city's leaking pipelines are being replaced fast enough. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Investigators won’t know for certain the cause of Monday’s fatal explosion in Reisterstown Station for weeks, perhaps months, yet. As devastating as it proved to be — killing at least two people, injuring seven others and turning three row homes to rubble — such disasters are mercifully uncommon; federal authorities reported about a dozen deaths from “significant” gas distribution incidents in all of last year. But what is far more common are leaky natural gas pipes, particularly in older cities such as Baltimore, which still have some antique cast iron infrastructure underground. Baltimore Gas and Electric receives 8,000 or more complaints of leaks each year, about two-thirds regarded as non-hazardous. All leaks in residential areas are classified as hazardous.

The utility is perfectly well aware of the problem, and it embarked years ago on an aggressive supplemental state-mandated program of repair and replacement of natural gas mains, service pipes, valves, joints and other potentially failing systems. Called the Maryland Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement (STRIDE) program, customers with BGE and other Maryland gas providers may have noticed the monthly small surcharge that pays for that work. This 20-year, pay-as-you-go model has long been touted as the most practical way of picking up the slack, and BGE proudly noted last year that it’s already resulted in about a $430 million investment and at least 260 miles of replacement pipeline since 2014. But is that enough?

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A horrifying event like a gas explosion so powerful that it registered on a seismic monitor in Owings Mills may be an outlier, but the tension between keeping utilities in top condition while maintaining rates as low as feasible is ever-present. Earlier this year, BGE submitted to the Maryland Public Service Commission a multi-year rate plan that keeps residential gas and electric rates at current levels into 2023 when they’ll be allowed to rise a combined 8.3% ($12.87 per month). The rationale was that freezing rates would be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many families are financially stretched and, further, that continued flat rates might help stimulate an economic recovery. But might a greater, earlier investment in gas line replacement actually prove more helpful to the region’s well-being?

We aren’t certain, frankly, but it’s a subject that deserves further exploration. The gas line serving the 4200 block of Labyrinth Road dates from the early 1960′s and was not even a candidate for STRIDE (which is focused on low-pressure century-old pipes, not the protected steel found in this case). So even a more robust STRIDE investment would have made no difference in this particular event. Further, a gas explosion can be caused by any number of factors including a faulty appliance. There had been no reports of leaks in the neighborhood and preliminary federal findings suggest the event originated inside one of the row-houses not with the pipeline.

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Still, there’s really no such thing as over-investment in infrastructure. Fewer gas line leaks would not only make energy delivery more efficient but would spare the environment, as methane is a major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change causing more harm pound-for-pound than carbon dioxide. And research published last year found more methane escaping into the skies above Baltimore than previously thought.

Here’s another factor to consider. Utility bills remain quite affordable by historic standards. Even with a 2023 rate increase, Maryland residential customers can expect to pay less each month for electric and gas than they did in 2008, a benefit of the nation’s falling commodity prices. At the very least, it would seem reasonable for the PSC to explore expanding STRIDE, perhaps by charging customers more than the maximum $2 per month allowed by law (currently it’s $1.03 on the monthly BGE bill). That would seem a win-win for all involved no matter whether leaking pipes had anything to do with this week’s tragedy.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if failing public infrastructure somehow found its way on the radar of elected officials in Washington who continue to fiddle while the nation’s roads, airports, tunnels, transit, drinking water and sewage systems and on and on deteriorate. The latest American Society of Civil Engineers report card gives the U.S. a collective D-plus. Maryland gets a more gentlemanly C, but its energy systems receive a less auspicious C-minus. Ratepayers need not be the only ones concerned about keeping things working properly. Politicians often promise a big investment from the government side, but when it comes time to pay the bill — to raise the federal gas tax, for example — they stand pat with a 1993-era standard. Eventually, the piper must be paid.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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