PROJECTpipes
Washington Gas workers excavate pipes on a city street. Credit: Courtesy of the D.C. Public Service Commission

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This week, the national conversation surrounding gas stoves shifted after a commissioner for the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the agency was considering placing a ban on gas stoves in the U.S. While CPSC quickly retracted their own statement a mere two days later, the announcement came amid increased pressure from environmentalists and national lawmakers to address the risks that gas stoves pose. D.C.’s current utilities don’t seem to share that sentiment.

Washington Gas is currently implementing PROJECTpipes, a 40-year accelerated project to replace D.C.’s gas pipes. Beginning in June 2014, the project completed Phase 1 in 2019, with the replacement of approximately 13 miles of pipe and 3,000 service lines, and a total investment of roughly $110 million as of September 30, 2019, according to the company’s overview of the project. Phase 2 of the project was approved in December 2020 and is expected to be completed by Dec. 31, 2023, for a total amount of $150 million

Concerns over gas stoves have been rising in recent years, with some regulations and policies reflecting this recent push to address safety concerns and the financial impact replacing a gas stove would have on consumers. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act provides credits and deductions for low- and moderate-income households to electrify their homes. 

Beyond the health and safety risks associated with gas stoves, electrification has become an integral part of the country’s climate goals, especially in the District’s own climate action plan, Clean Energy DC. The path to a fully electric D.C. has seen several obstacles, and environmental advocates worry that PROJECTpipes will be detrimental to these efforts. 

According to Claire Hacker, an organizer with the D.C. chapter of Extinction Rebellion (XRDC), an international climate movement, PROJECTpipes makes D.C ‘s 2017 pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050 impossible. Millions of dollars have already been put into Washington Gas’ project, but Hacker warns against falling into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy. 

Washington Gas is set to appear before the Public Service Commission at some point this month to have the next phase of the pipe replacement project approved, with work on Phase 3 scheduled to begin in March of this year. And since last spring, this is where XRDC has been focusing its organizing efforts. 

Beyond spreading public awareness on the need to end methane use in D.C., XRDC is working to put pressure on both PSC and the D.C. Council to reject Washington Gas’ application for Phase 3 of PROJECTpipes. 

Hacker acknowledges the challenges XRDC is facing in this effort. She says the PSC exists to regulate utilities, “but what we’ve seen from them is they just rubber stamp what Washington Gas is trying to do [and] D.C. Council normally just lets the PSC do what they think is best. The government isn’t stepping in to stop the project.” 

As to be expected, the electrification initiative has its skeptics. 

Karen Harbert, president of the American Gas Association, said in a statement that “The most practical, realistic way to achieve a sustainable future where energy is clean, as well as safe, reliable and affordable, is to ensure it includes natural gas and the infrastructure that transports it.” 

Washington Gas is making a similar argument with PROJECTpipes. Hacker anticipates the company will “kick the can down the road” and defend the project to the PSC by emphasizing the need for safe methane use and a clean energy option while D.C. works on continuing with its electrification goals.

In a statement to City Paper, Washington Gas addressed safety concerns, stating, “Comments made in many of the reports about the hazards of gas stoves have been funded by NGO’s in support of an agenda to remove consumer choice and ban gas. The studies cited are often very limited in scope and/or are not based on real-life appliance usage. If prompted, we will work with regulators and policy makers to ensure that any approach taken is based on objective technical information and sound data.”

According to the utility, “Washington Gas has and will continue to prioritize customer safety above all else. Washington Gas will continue to work with policy makers to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of energy to our customers and the region.”

But Washington Gas has already come under fire for safety risks after a volunteer group with the Washington Interfaith Network detected hundreds of methane leaks across that District that reached “potentially explosive” levels. The leaks were detected in 2022, more than six years after the start of PROJECTpipes. 

The use of the word “clean” to describe gas has also been criticized, and Washington Gas is still facing a lawsuit from U.S. Public Interest Research Group for the language misleading consumers about the sustainability of natural gas. 

As discussions on a ban on gas are increasing across the country, the conversation appears to be going in a different direction in D.C. despite the city’s high hopes for a green future. Hacker hopes that XRDC’s work will help the PSC and the Council realize that moving forward with PROJECTpipes would mean giving up D.C.’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

“That doesn’t look great for the D.C. government but what’s really important is the impact that this will have on D.C. residents,” she says. “Every moment, every year we have is critical for curbing emissions.”

The Public Service Commission did not respond to our request for comment before the time of publication.

This story has been updated with a statement from Washington Gas.