Gas-leak debate prompts call for standards

Utility, terminal sparring over Pr. George's problem

July 10, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The dispute over whether imported liquid natural gas helped cause an estimated 1,400 gas leaks in Prince George's County underscores the need for more uniform national fuel standards, an industry group said.

"Liquid natural gas is an important part of the supply picture, and we need to know that when it's used, it's fully compatible," with pipeline and distribution systems, Melissa Marion, communications coordinator for the National Gas Supply Association, said Friday.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is working on new regulations for natural gas to make sure that fuel imported from different parts of the world and processed in different ways doesn't cause problems because of varying chemical composition, said an agency spokesman.

To help satisfy growing demand for natural gas, the federal government is considering a vast expansion of the amount of imported fuel entering the United States aboard tanker ships in chilled and condensed liquid form. The fuel is warmed and returned to a gas before being burned in power plants, furnaces, stoves and other appliances.

Dominion energy of Richmond, Va., is the owner of the largest liquid-gas terminal in the country, located at Cove Point in Calvert County. Dominion and Washington Gas, a utility that distributes some of the fuel, traded accusations last week about whether the chemical composition of fuel imported through Cove Point was to blame for the 1,400 leaks over two years in southern Prince George's County.

Among the leaks being examined by the Prince George's County Fire Department is a March 28 explosion that destroyed a brick house in the District Heights section of the county.

Fuel debate

Washington Gas officials said the imported fuel flowing in through the Cove Point terminal since its reopening in August 2003 had a lower content of heavy hydrocarbons than the distribution system in southern Prince George's County was used to handling.

This change in gas composition caused aging rubber seals in the company's pipe couplings to shrink during cold weather, causing numerous leaks, said Tim Sargeant, spokesman for Washington Gas.

Officials are now spending $144 million to replace seals, lines and equipment in the area, and they are considering adding hydrocarbons to the gas flowing in through Cove Point so that it works better with their system, Sargeant said.

"We want to work collaboratively with Dominion Cove Point to solve this problem, because we see liquid natural gas as an important source of natural gas," Sargeant said.

Dominion officials said that their gas is not the problem and that it meets all federal standards. The leaks were caused by faulty, sometimes half-century-old seals and equipment owned by Washington Gas that in some cases may have been installed improperly, said Carl Baab, spokesman for Dominion.

"I don't think [new fuel guidelines] will have any impact on this situation because the gas streams are already subject to very strict federal regulations, and they already meet those regulations," Baab said.

The kind of mechanical couplings with rubber seals associated with the leaks in Prince George's County were installed between 1958 and 1974, according to a Washington Gas report. These couplings "aren't commonly used today" and haven't been popular since the 1970s, when many utilities began installing plastic pipes that are more flexible, said Daphne Magnuson, spokeswoman for the American Gas Association, which represents utilities.

National standards

Bryan Lee, spokesman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said he has heard of no other cases in which utility companies have complained that imported liquid gas has caused leaks in seals or pipes. "But we do have a process under way to examine gas-quality issues associated with liquid natural gas as well as domestic gas," Lee said.

The inquiry into possible additional federal standards was requested in May by the Natural Gas Supply Association, said Mark Stultz, spokesman for the organization.

"Gas quality can vary, even when it's produced in the U.S. It's not just a matter of imported liquid natural gas," said Stultz.

The industry became concerned about the variations because gas with too many heavy hydrocarbons sometimes turns to liquid inside of pipelines, requiring expensive efforts to clean it out. Gas with other variations can release too much potentially dangerous carbon monoxide when it's burned inside homes, Stultz said.

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