WHAT OTHERS SAY: Tougher rules needed to protect natural gas customers

Monday, April 15, 2013 | 1:28 p.m. CDT

Natural gas utilities and other pipeline operators stress that customer safety is their top priority. But put a big asterisk on that statement: There’s a limit to how much they want to really spend on safety.

Natural gas experts agree that shut-off valves are valuable tools to have during a natural gas leak. They can protect the public and their property.

However, as The Star’s Steve Everly wrote recently, a hodgepodge of U.S. and state rules have been put in place to govern where the valves have to be located and how they have to be used — either manually in the old-fashioned and slower way, or more quickly through automatic or remote-controlled means.

Those rules, for the most part, have been worked out with companies such as Missouri Gas Energy and Kansas Gas Service. The utilities, which serve hundreds of thousands of Kansas City area residents, are pressured to keep rates low as they compete with other forms of energy and to produce profits for their parent companies.

The result?

While regulators stand meekly by, the companies have too much power over how the safety valves are used.

As an example, The Star recalled the series of natural gas explosions that rocked parts of the metropolitan area in 1989. Federal regulators responded just a year later with a recommendation to use a new type of valve near the curb of residential gas users.

But this proactive move didn’t work as planned. MGE and others such as the American Gas Association complained about the costs and potential effectiveness of the new valves. Eighteen long years later, the industry finally was required to use the new valves.

The Star also highlighted the problems with allowing the utilities to call the shots with the regular shut-off valves that were at the center of attention after the recent fatal natural gas blast at JJ’s Restaurant.

No universal — or logical — federal rules govern the placement of these valves. That’s problem No. 1, because it allows utilities to decide how they want to inconvenience customers with shutoffs during emergencies, possibly leaving the safety of neighborhoods at risk with their decisions.

Problem No. 2 is that the utilities don’t use the shut-off valves on a consistent basis. The JJ’s blast occurred after MGE workers decided not to try to shut off the leaking gas but instead dealt with the problem in another way.

In other examples, time-consuming delays dealing with natural gas leaks have led to injuries or deaths.

Pacific Gas and Electric changed its position on what kind of shut-off valves it favored after problems with a manually operated valve contributed to a 2010 explosion in California that killed eight people. The utility now is installing more automatic or remote-controlled valves.

The investigation into the JJ’s incident might provide information on whether the use of shut-off valves could have prevented or at least reduced the risk of that kind of deadly incident.

If upgrades are subsequently required, will Missouri Gas Energy and other utilities try to follow the industry’s past practices of stonewalling or slowly making the changes? Federal and state regulators should not allow that to happen this time — or long into the future.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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