Massachusetts is taking steps to require natural gas utilities to repair leaks in their underground pipelines that threaten public safety, pollute the environment, and cost ratepayers millions of dollars a year, according to an article on WAMC.com.

The utilities previously had been allowed to leave leaking gas mains unrepaired, and the new law, although touted as an important public safety measure, allows that practice to continue, while also allowing utilities to continue billing customers for the gas that is lost from leaks – as well as for the cost of fixing the leaks.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick this week signed the new law, which falls short of requiring immediate repairs to all gas leaks. Instead, it sets a uniform standard for rating the severity of natural gas leaks and establishes a timetable for making repairs, according to the article.

“The bill establishes natural gas leak classification standards. It requires the gas companies to repair the most dangerous leaks immediately and produce plans for the timely replacement of aging pipelines,” the article states. “Repairs must be prioritized if the leak is detected in a school zone,” but other leaks still need not be repaired immediately.

Massachusetts has more than 21,000 miles of natural gas pipeline with some estimated to be more than 150 years old, according to WAMC. “A study concluded more than a third of the gas delivery infrastructure is prone to leaks,” the article states.

State Rep. Laurie Ehrlich of Marblehead, a lead sponsor of the legislation, said, “The gas beneath our feet traveling in pipes that are very old and corroded and prone to leaks is very flammable. Often times as soon as that gas comes in contact with a spark it can cause an explosion. Tragically, houses have been leveled and people have died. So it is an important issue.”

Leaking natural gas is also costly to ratepayers, who have paid an estimated $1.5 billion for natural gas that leaked from utility pipelines (or is otherwise unaccounted for), according to a report prepared for U.S. Sen. Edward Markey. The leaks also release methane into the environment, where it aggravates climate change. The principal ingredient in natural gas, methane has 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.

The new Massachusetts law allows utilities to charge their customers for making pipeline repairs and upgrades and is expected to increase their monthly bills. Initial estimates project an increase of $1 to $2 per month in the average customer’s bill, according to the article.

To read the WAMC article, click here.