Federal pipeline agency has essential opportunity to reduce methane emissions

By Erin Murphy and Elgie Holstein

The Biden administration recently directed gas pipeline companies to explain how they will minimize emissions of methane, which is both a potent greenhouse pollutant and the primary component of natural gas. This is the first step in implementing the PIPES Act of 2020, which Congress passed last year detailing new oversight requirements with an enhanced focus on environmental protection as well as safety.

Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during the first 20 years after release, which makes pipeline emissions a crucial element in a national climate strategy.

Natural gas pipelines emit methane through unintended leakage and deliberate operational releases. Researchers estimate that distribution pipelines alone have about 630,000 leaks emitting 690 thousand tons of methane annually — five times higher than estimated in the U.S. EPA greenhouse gas inventory.

The PIPES Act of 2020 directs the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to set standards to reduce methane emissions from all three pipeline categories: gathering lines, which bring gas in from scattered wells to central collection points; long distance transmission lines, which move gas around the country; and countless miles of local distribution lines that bring gas to your door.

Gathering lines are an essential addition. The U.S. has over 435,000 miles of gathering pipelines transporting gas from production sites to processing facilities, but PHMSA estimates that only about 17,000 miles are federally regulated.

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National advanced leak detection standards for pipelines are needed

In particular, the act mandates that PHMSA develop new standards requiring pipeline operators to use advanced leak detection programs to find and fix gas leaks. ALD technology and practices are commercially available and used widely by companies around the world. Peer-reviewed research on gas distribution lines has reported that ALD solutions identified 65% more leaks than company crews were able to locate with traditional technologies.

Unlike conventional methods, ALD can not only find leaks, but also accurately measure them — a crucial step for prioritizing remediation and repair efforts. For example, just 16% of leaks on distribution pipelines are the source of 50% of the methane emissions.

Getting these rules right is important. As PHMSA moves toward strong ALD standards for gas pipelines by the end of 2021, they should include:

  • Clear standards for minimum technology performance, survey methods and survey frequency — with flexibility built in to ensure continued technology improvement.
  • Comprehensive coverage of distribution, transmission and gathering pipelines.
  • Strong reporting requirements to ensure public knowledge about pipeline methane, and to allow operators to demonstrate progress in reducing leakage.
  • Mandatory benchmarking of actual current methane emissions and required tracking of improvements year over year.

Allowable solutions to fix leaks should include repair, replacement and retirement of the pipeline segment. As reduced reliance on natural gas means less need for pipeline infrastructure, retirement of these assets is an increasingly important pathway to address methane emissions and reduce costs.

Gathering pipelines need federal oversight

PHMSA proposed expanded standards for the country’s vast and growing network of gathering lines in 2016 but has not finalized them, leaving a concerning oversight gap. As gathering lines have increased in size and pressure, they pose greater safety and climate concerns due to methane leakage. For example, states are already recognizing the concern; Colorado recently passed legislation to address safety and environmental harms of gathering lines, including to improve mapping requirements.

The PIPES Act of 2020 addresses the gap in federal oversight and directs PHMSA to move quickly to finalize its pending gathering line standards. The agency must act now to update and finalize standards for gathering lines, incorporating recommendations by EDF and the Pipeline Safety Trust:

  • Repeal the exemption for reporting requirements for gas gathering lines and add gathering lines to the National Pipeline Mapping System to provide consistent, accessible information about the ownership, location, size and operating pressure of gathering infrastructure.
  • Revise the definition of gas gathering lines to expand the scope of regulated lines and require operators to report on gathering lines within six months of the new definition taking effect.
  • Ensure that reported information is public, transparent and in machine-readable format to facilitate public knowledge and academic research.

Multiple benefits

In addition to improving pipeline safety and reducing climate-changing methane emissions, comprehensive ALD standards will create new jobs and grow the methane mitigation service sector, which has nearly doubled in size since 2017.

Congress acted decisively to assign PHMSA an expanded environmental mission in addition to its safety role. To support achievement of President Biden’s ambitious climate goals, PHMSA must continue to move forward with decisive actions to reduce methane emissions from pipelines.


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