Washington Gas, a subsidiary of WGL Holdings Inc., is exploring whether an outbreak of leaks in the utility’s natural gas distribution pipelines and mains in Prince George’s County, MD, is the result of aging connections or the introduction of regasified LNG to its system.

“We are investigating a variety of scenarios. [Liquefied natural gas] is only one of several scenarios that we are looking at” as the cause for the leaks, said Tim Sargeant, a spokesman for the Washington, DC-based natural gas utility. He noted that Bill Gibson, the president of Teamsters Local 96, representing 600 utility gas field service workers, was the first to blame the high incidence of leaks on the Btu-rich imported LNG.

Washington Gas has identified approximately 1,400 gas leaks in a 100 square-mile area in Prince George’s County, of which it has repaired 450 so far. Customers first began reporting the leaks in the county in late 2003, but the volume of calls declined in the spring of 2004, said the utility, which serves about one million customers in the metropolitan DC and surrounding region. The gas leaks, however, shot up again in late 2004. The county is the only one Washington Gas serves that is experiencing the high level of leaks.

Although its pipelines are reportedly in good condition, the utility believes the seals that are located within mechanical couplings, which connect sections of distribution mains and service lines, appear to be deteriorating, causing the gas leaks. The couplings were installed between the 1950s and 1970s, mainly in Prince George’s County, Washington Gas said. The utility estimates that it will spend a total of $87 million to replace the aging equipment and plug the leaks. It expects the work will take six months.

Besides having the greatest concentration of aging couplings, Prince George’s is the most populous county served directly off the Cove Point Pipeline, carrying regasified LNG from the Dominion Cove Point LNG terminal in the eastern Maryland terminal. The Cove Point line continues on to connect with three major interstate pipelines where the regasified LNG is commingled with domestic gas before going into distribution lines for the rest of the metropolitan Washington area.

The utility has engaged the help of the Gas Research Institute, Environ International Corp., Polymer Solutions Inc. and Akron Rubber Development Laboratory Inc. to identify the reasons for the leaks, Sargeant noted.

Following a house explosion in District Heights, MD, on March 28, the Maryland Public Service Commission launched an inquiry into the cause of the natural gas leaks on the Maryland distribution system of Washington Gas. The commission has ordered the utility to file monthly reports updating it on the company’s investigation into the reasons for the leaks and the corrective action that it has taken.

A Dominion official dismissed the prospect that LNG was the cause of the leaks. “We’d be very surprised if when all the facts are in that gas quality [of LNG] is the cause of these leaks,” said Dominion spokesman Dan Donovan. He noted that most of the LNG delivered to Cove Point is imported from Trinidad, and is close to the quality of domestic gas. The gas arrives at Cove Point in chilled liquid form and then is turned into a gaseous state (regasified) for entry into the pipeline system.

If it turns out that the quality of the regasified gas is responsible for the leaks, it could be the industry’s worst nightmare come true. Natural gas pipelines and distribution lines have been concerned that Btu-rich imported gas might damage the integrity of their systems. In fact, customers of Washington Gas expressed these fears prior to the reactivation of the then-mothballed Cove Point terminal in July 2003.

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