Baltimore City Council members scrutinized Baltimore Gas and Electric Company’s controversial gas regulator relocation project during a two-hour hearing Wednesday night, posing some of the same questions residents have asked in a lawsuit against the utility.
BGE is looking to replace more than 11,200 indoor gas regulators, devices that maintain a set pressure of a gas system, with external models by the end of 2031. BGE says external regulators, which have been installed on the façade of rowhomes across the city, are safer, citing a federal investigation that followed a gas leak in 2016.
Residents say they have safety concerns if vehicles crash into the regulators, which is a primary cause of serious gas accidents, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A class action of more than 400 plaintiffs last week won a 60-day temporary restraining order against BGE, prohibiting the utility company from installing the regulators without a homeowner’s consent or shutting off service if they refuse access.
Multiple members of the council’s Health, Environment, and Technology Committee pressed BGE officials on one of the claims in the suit: that the company is violating its state-regulated agreement with residents when it shuts off service to homeowners who refuse to have a regulator installed with little to no notice.
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who represents the 14th District, said BGE is effectively “forcing people” to allow the installation.
“That’s not really getting their permission,” she said, drawing one of the loudest rounds of applause in the hearing.
BGE representatives said the company sends letters to residents before starting work to schedule an inspection. After the inspection of existing gas equipment inside of homes, the utility company asks residents to provide “a date and time at which the installation can be performed.”
Ramos also asked the utility company why it considers the Flower Branch Act, a law that calls for the installation of external regulators in multifamily dwellings, applicable to rowhomes in Baltimore, which are largely single-family units.
A representative for BGE said the act shows that external regulators are “safer.”
“I also see that as a minimum requirement,” the representative said, referring to language in the act mandating that only new structures and multifamily dwellings with six units have external regulators. “So BGE’s position is that all customers deserve the enhanced safety that is provided by external regulators.”
Council members also probed BGE’s role in addressing climate change, with Councilman Zeke Cohen, who is running for City Council president and currently represents the 1st District, asking how a massive infrastructure investment in any fossil fuel is in alignment with the state’s climate goals. Again, residents, many of them plaintiffs in the lawsuit against BGE, cheered.
BGE representatives responded that “replacing centuries-old cast iron pipe significantly reduces methane emissions.
During their opening statement, representatives for the company maintained that the utility company follows a thorough process to try to reach residents before shutting down gas services and that their practices, contrary to what residents said, are aligned to the state’s environmental goals.
“We have an obligation to ensure the safety of the gas system, and replacing the aging infrastructure helps us meet this obligation,” they said. “The belief that we are doing this work to protect revenues because of electrification are ill-formed.”
The gas relocation project has cost the utility company more than $3 million as of 2023, according to public records, and BGE has relocated 190 indoor regulators in central Maryland.
While the project is delayed by the temporary restraining order, BGE said it will await “clear direction” from the Maryland Public Service Commission, the body that oversees and regulates utility companies, before restarting. The commission is holding a hearing on the issue in August.
“It is critical that BGE receive timely direction to minimize the disruption of unfinished work across central Maryland and avoid uncertainty for our local, minority-owned firms and the 210 workers that execute these projects,” BGE said in a statement.
An analysis by the Office of People’s Counsel — which represents the interests of Marylanders before the Public Service Commission — found BGE’s plan to replace all its aging infrastructure by 2043 will put customers on the hook for $15 billion through the end of the century.
“It is long past time to evaluate the need and desirability of spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year tearing up our streets to add and replace fossil gas infrastructure,” David Lapp, the People’s Counsel, said in a press release. “These investments are not compatible with long-term customer interests and the State’s climate goals. The spending on fossil fuel infrastructure represents a lost opportunity to help customers electrify their home energy use, save money, and help mitigate climate change.”
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, Cohen released a statement saying he plans to introduce a resolution next week to “reject” the company’s replacement project, citing the Office of People’s Counsel analysis that customers’ gas bill costs will increase. He also urged the Public Service Commission to “reject BGE’s rate plan” on Twitter.
“BGE has been not been a good enough partner to our communities. Too often their communication has been sloppy and they have left some job sites in horrible shape,” he wrote Wednesday. “Recently they have attempted to steamroll residents into accepting external regulators without a strong rationale.”
After a CHAP hearing Tuesday, the commission has decided to hold a special hearing on gas regulators, said executive director Eric Holcomb, adding that the devices “detract from the historic character” of neighborhoods. Part of these efforts will mean seeing what position other historic districts have taken on regulators.
Some residents from Mount Vernon and Federal Hill said they need to maintain their rowhomes to certain standards due to the buildings’ historic status.
”Nevertheless, if the safety issue is there, then we will require them [external regulators],” Holcomb said.