Utilities resist plan of PUC
By Timothy Puko
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
State regulators and utilities are at odds over how quickly to implement new safeguards that would require most gas meters to be moved outdoors and could result in higher bills for utility customers.
The Public Utility Commission wants meters to be moved outside within 10 years because of the risks from leaks. Regulators cited 65 incidents in 40 years that resulted in at least $50,000 in damages, a death or an injury in pushing for the change.
Utilities want 20 years to make the changes or to include them as part of long-term upgrades to old pipelines. Although they agree that indoor meters are a safety concern, they argue that they are not a priority risk. They say that the state's timeline will distract from important safety upgrades to the old pipelines and create redundant work that would lead to higher costs.
“Threats ... related to inside meters did not rank among the top 10 risks currently identified” in an annual safety review Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania Inc. finished in May, company attorney Kimberly S. Cuccia wrote last week in a response to the PUC proposal. Giving special priority to moving indoor meters “would be the antithesis of a sound ... risk reduction strategy.”
Indoor meters are more prevalent in the eastern part of the state. Western Pennsylvania accounts for a fifth of the state's 850,000 indoor meters, according to industry figures. About 15.5 percent of all the meters in the Pittsburgh area are indoors. Four utilities that serve Western Pennsylvania have estimated the work would cost them between $334.1 million and $380.6 million.
“It's not a new conversation we've been having,” PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said about the company's complaints. “We work to balance the safety with the cost and the needs of the consumers. All of that will be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.”
According to the state, inspectors can't get to indoor meters for regular checks, and there have been several explosions resulting from steel pipelines being struck outside and pulled away from meters inside.
Kocher cited, as examples of the danger, explosions in the last six years that destroyed buildings in Altoona and Hummelstown.
The PUC first proposed rules requiring utilities to move indoor meters outside in 2011.
It started looking at the rules in light of disputes Columbia and Equitable Gas Co. had with homeowners about whether the companies could charge them for moving indoor meters.
Some utilities were moving indoor meters outside as part of other projects.
Companies won't be allowed to pass on the cost of routine replacement to individual homeowners; they'll be able to do that only when a homeowner specifically requests a meter be moved outside, Kocher said.
The broader rule would require the costs to be distributed evenly across all customers.
Tanya J. McCloskey, the state's acting consumer advocate, said her office is not taking a stance on the issue because it doesn't have enough data.
After taking public comment, the commission revised its proposal in September to include exceptions for properties that are historic or at a “high risk” of vandalism. Any property that has one of several possible historic designations can qualify, and it is up to utilities to determine whether a property's circumstances indicate that a meter is a risk for vandalism.
The initial proposal set a 2020 deadline for replacements. That has been delayed to 10 years from the date of the rule's passage, which likely would put the deadline in 2024, according to the commission.
The delay isn't enough for the utilities.
They are working on long-term improvement plans to remove bare steel pipe and other old infrastructure that they, state officials and safety advocates have targeted as a major safety risk for leaks and explosions.
Prioritizing the meter replacements would set back those programs and cause the companies to double back, tearing up streets and shutting off service for customers who have been subject to other maintenance work recently, they said.
Columbia, for example, has reduced the number of its indoor meters by 20 percent by working to replace old pipelines and meters at the same time, company spokeswoman Rachel V. Ford said.
Columbia wants 20 years, instead of 10, to move its meters outdoor, according to its letter.
Other companies did not request a specific delay but asked the commission to allow them to do the work in accordance with the long-term improvement plans they have filed with the commission.
“Generally, we are in favor of the PUC's effort to move meters to the outside. However, we do believe the 10-year time frame makes this very expensive,” Barry Kukovich, spokesman for Peoples Natural Gas Co. and Peoples TWP LLC said in an email. “We prefer to coordinate the meter changes with our upgrading. This will be a cost savings and less of a disruption for our customers.”
PUC staff will review all the comments and prepare a recommendation for the commissioners, Kocher said. They won't vote until next year, after which the Independent Regulatory Review Commission will have to approve the rule, she added.
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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