December 2023, Vol. 250, No. 12


APGA Continues Focus on Advocacy of Natural Gas

(P&GJ) – Formed in 1961, the American Public Gas Association (APGA) has played an instrumental role in the operations of more than 700 member companies in 36 states ever since, by representing its members before Congress and other federal agencies through careful assembling of regulatory and legislative positions.

Chairman Chris Latch

The Washington, D.C.-based association also holds meetings, seminars and workshops throughout the year, designed to help member companies improve their reliability, operational efficiency and regulatory environment. 

In this interview, Chairman Chris Latch, who is also the assistant general manager for the city of Corinth Gas & Water Department, discusses APGA’s priorities for 2024, along with the public’s concerns about natural gas and other industry topics. 

P&GJ: What led you to a career in natural gas? 

Chris Latch: It’s hard to say exactly what led me to this as a career. I got my first taste of this industry when I was in college [Mississippi State University, where he received a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering]. I worked for a petroleum engineering professor who encouraged me to work in the oil and gas industry. It’s funny that as a student in engineering, working for a utility was not even on my radar. I just assumed I would end up working at a factory somewhere. 
P&GJ: Tell us a little about the Corinth Gas & Water Department. 

Latch: Corinth Gas and Water is a municipal utility, established in the 1950s, that has a staff of 46 employees and serves approximately 16,000 water and gas customers. We are located in the northeast corner of Mississippi. We are one of the few utilities in our state that is governed by a utilities commission.  

  1. P&GJ:  What are your top priorities for APGA in the coming year?

Latch: The natural gas distribution industry is constantly changing and as public gas systems, we must remain flexible. We must adapt to the waves of change that we face, as we continue to meet the needs of our customers safely and affordably. That is why I chose “Waves of Change,” as my chairman’s theme. 

Over the next year, APGA will focus on the regulatory challenges facing public gas systems and the natural gas industry as a whole. These challenges range from appliance efficiency rulemakings at the Department of Energy (DOE) — which will impact the ability of consumers to purchase natural gas appliances — to rulemakings at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which will greatly impact how public gas systems construct, operate and maintain their pipeline systems. 

Legislatively — again in 2024 — Congress will have to pass a bill reauthorizing the Pipeline Safety Act. APGA will be heavily engaged in those efforts, ensuring that the voice of public gas is heard on Capitol Hill. 

Outside of regulatory and legislative advocacy, APGA continues to work closely with its members and PHMSA on the Natural Gas Distribution Infrastructure Safety and Modernization Grant Program that was authorized in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in 2021. 

P&GJ: What are some of the challenges to natural gas that you are specifically focused on? 

Latch: I started my career in operations and now, as an assistant general manager of a public gas system, I continue to engage in issues directly impacting how public gas operators maintain their systems. One such regulatory issue that is especially important to operations is PHMSA’s Gas Pipeline Leak Detection Rule. 

Pipeline safety and reducing methane emissions have been — and continue to be — a top priority for APGA members. In fact, methane emissions from natural gas distribution systems across the country have declined by 70 percent, from 1990 to 2021. 

However, there are several components of the proposed Gas Pipeline Leak Detection Rule that APGA is greatly concerned about, such as the implementation timeframe for the rule being unrealistic and the leak repair timelines potentially not resulting in improvements in public safety or minimized environmental impact. 

I am also greatly concerned about the negative impact of a recently finalized DOE furnace rulemaking. APGA was extremely disappointed in this action, which sets a new minimum efficiency standard for residential gas furnaces that will directly harm consumers and undermine energy efficiency and emissions reductions. The rule wrongfully drives costly fuel switching, as it bans a popular appliance technology — non-condensing furnaces — from the market. 

Without access to this technology, many consumers will be forced to replace their furnaces with costly retrofits — if it is even possible — or switch to electric alternatives. This policy is especially concerning for vulnerable, underserved communities, as it could force them to shift to electric furnaces, which are less affordable and efficient than the direct use of natural gas. On a full-fuel-cycle basis, the delivery of natural gas is about 90% efficient. By contrast, electricity is only about 37% efficient. 

P&GJ: Can you discuss some of the opposition to natural gas you are seeing at the state and local levels? 

Latch: There certainly has been a push in some areas of the country to ban or limit natural gas use at the state and local level. These efforts aim to force communities to a single-source, all-electric energy delivery model, which eliminates access to efficient and resilient natural gas. I strongly believe that energy policy proposals that put “all our eggs in one basket” are shortsighted, untested and eliminate the ability for consumers to decide what is best for their families, homes and businesses. 

Smart energy policies should decrease emissions and reduce energy consumption in the most efficient and cost-effective way, while planning for our sustainable energy future in a way that protects consumer options. For many years, the public gas system infrastructure and workforce have provided natural gas to customers to address energy efficiency goals in an impactful way. The sustainable energy future should include public gas system infrastructure and employees. 

We all want to conserve our environment, and APGA believes that can be done without sacrificing consumer choice. I am glad to see that 25 states have indicated their support, by enacting energy choice legislation that preserves the ability of consumers to choose the energy source that works best for them and their appliances. 

P&GJ: How are you communicating your messages to the public, specifically those opposed to fossil fuel? 

Latch: It is critical that we continue to educate policymakers and other stakeholders regarding the undeniable benefits of the direct use of natural gas in homes and businesses. Smart energy policies should take advantage of our nation’s pipeline infrastructure. As I communicated earlier, the roadmap to a sustainable energy future should not depend on a single energy source. 

APGA has been taking our message to consumers, policymakers, the media and other stakeholders. We have been utilizing a wide range of mediums in our communications, from op-ed pieces in newspapers to videos that educate consumers. An example of this was an op-ed in the Washington Post that APGA wrote in response to attacks on gas cooktops. 

Though what pleased me, personally, even more was the push-back nationally from consumers on these attacks. Also, APGA has utilized YouTube to simplify impacts of complex regulations through videos. An informative video that addresses the negative issues of the furnace rule is available on our YouTube channel. 

P&GJ: Turning to pipeline safety and operational issues, what are APGA’s priorities? 

Latch: The Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act of 2020 included several provisions mandating regulatory action by PHMSA. Two resultant rulemakings were proposed in 2023 by PHMSA: the Gas Pipeline Leak Detection rule and the Safety of Gas Distribution Pipelines rule. Both rulemaking efforts will directly and significantly impact the daily operations of public natural gas distribution systems. 

From prescribing leak survey frequencies and leak repair criteria to mandated communications during emergencies, these proposed regulations will impact every plan and procedure used by natural gas distribution operators. APGA supports PHMSA meeting congressional mandates, as well as public gas systems voluntarily incorporating lessons learned from major industry tragedies and utilizing new technologies appropriate for their system. 

However, public natural gas systems are accountable to their customers and communities, and regulations requiring significant expenditures must positively impact public and pipeline safety. Unfortunately, PHMSA has not adequately justified these most recent proposals. Accordingly, APGA will continue to advocate for reasonable and practicable rulemakings to enhance pipeline safety. 

P&GJ: What are any new or pending regulatory requirements of interest to APGA? How is APGA helping to prepare its members? 

Latch: Beyond the rulemaking activities underway at PHMSA, public gas utilities continue to be concerned about DOE’s furnace rule, as well as other recent appliance efficiency rulemakings. These rules are not being driven by sound science, transparent analysis and sufficient economic justification. Instead, they unintentionally harm Americans. 

APGA is a strong supporter of energy efficiency and we have been engaging — and will continue to do so — in rulemakings related to furnaces, commercial water heaters, consumer boilers, consumer water heaters and other appliances, for which public gas utilities provide energy. Also, APGA recognizes the value of our abundant domestic energy supply and sufficient pipeline capacity to transport natural gas to demand locations. 

We will be engaging, as appropriate, in regulatory efforts that limit access to natural gas production here in the U.S., as well as advocating to ensure there are policies allowing sufficient pipeline infrastructure to be built. Some of these policies may also be debated on Capitol Hill, so APGA will work with members of Congress if need be. 

P&GJ: Do APGA and its members see growth potential involving pipelines and hydrogen gas? If so, in what specific ways?  

Latch: APGA and our members do believe hydrogen can support our country’s efforts to decrease direct emissions, while still utilizing the reliable public gas utility workforce. A big focus for APGA now is completing research to ensure hydrogen can safely be delivered to customers. The APGA Research Foundation (RF) is partnering with GTI Energy to complete much of this research. 

A few projects include working to determine the impact of hydrogen blending on Aldyl-A and HDPE pipes, gas meters, diaphragm-type service regulators; identifying any gaps between hydrogen and natural gas pipeline standards and practices; and exploring potential impacts of hydrogen blended gas on residential and commercial combustion equipment. 

APGA’s RF is also directly funding GTI Energy’s Net Zero Infrastructure Program, which is testing and mapping the most practical opportunities for integrating low-carbon solutions, such as hydrogen, within the existing natural gas infrastructure. 

P&GJ: What, if anything, about your job keeps you awake at night? 

Latch: Usually, the only time I am a little bit uneasy is when we are expecting or during extreme cold or severe weather events. I can’t help but think about the what if’s or the unexpected. Thankfully, I think the resiliency of natural gas distribution systems is why many people use our fuel. Many times, when the power is out, natural gas is still being delivered to our homes, schools, hospitals and businesses. 

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