Regulation to Control Methane Leaks in Natural Gas Pipelines

To: Ms. Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the EPA

From: Christopher von Türk

Date: 2/6/15

Regulation to Control Methane Leaks in Natural Gas Pipelines

Leaks in natural gas pipelines pose public safety, environmental, and economic dangers to citizens across the nation. In January of this year, researchers at Harvard University released a report, which found that methane emissions from aging pipes and other sources in Boston are more than double official state estimates.[i] These leaks pose a public safety threat because methane leaks can be the cause of explosions. Second, these leaks pose an environmental threat because methane impacts global warming more potently than carbon dioxide does.[ii] Finally, the methane leaks pose an economic threat to residents and businesses, who pay for the leaked methane although they never receive it.[iii] The Massachusetts state legislature, even before the report was published, realized the seriousness of the issue at hand, and responded by passing An Act Relative to Natural Gas Leaks.[iv] Legislation similar to the type passed in Massachusetts is necessary at the national level.

 

Analysis and Background

Methane leaks in natural gas pipelines pose a serious national threat; studies conducted in cities across the nation, including Boston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia,[v] have indicated that leaks in the pipeline network are more widespread than official estimates had shown. The leaks in the networks are in large part due to antiquated pipelines. Aging infrastructure is a phenomenon occurring not only in older, industrial cities on the eastern seaboard, but also in other parts of the nation such as Los Angeles.[vi] As our nation grows older, investment and reinvestment in infrastructure will become increasingly necessary.[vii] Furthermore, regulation of natural gas pipelines is becoming increasingly relevant as the nation continues to switch from “dirtier” sources of energy, such as coal and oil, to natural gas. [viii]

Leaks in natural gas pipelines pose three unique types of threats:

  • First and foremost, they are a threat to public safety. On April 11, 2014, a natural gas explosion in Dorchester, Massachusetts injured 11 people.[ix] Later that year, on July 2, a natural gas explosion killed Spencer Unruh and injured two of his family members in rural Kansas.[x] These types of explosions occur monthly across the nation.[xi]
  • Second, inefficiencies in natural gas networks pose an environmental problem in that methane contributes to global warming. In fact, the warming impact from methane leaks over the next 20 years could be 84 times that of carbon dioxide emissions, according to several estimates.[xii] Underground methane leaks pose an even more immediate threat to the environment, however. Methane from leaks invades the soil and the root systems, creating anoxic conditions, which can starve the roots of oxygen.[xiii]
  • Third, methane leaks are costly for utilities, which transfer those costs to the consumer. In Boston it was estimated that 15 billion cubic feet of methane (or $90 million worth) escapes from its network to the atmosphere each year, enough natural gas to supply more than 286,000 average homes annually. From 2000 to 2011, Massachusetts’ natural gas consumers paid up to $1.5 billion for gas that never made it to them.[xiv]

 

Previous and Current Action

On a national level, there has been little done to regulate methane emissions and inefficiencies in natural gas pipeline networks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new policies to further stem methane emissions across the country, but most of the proposals offered by the EPA are voluntary.[xv] For example, the Gas Star Gold Program, launched in 2014 by the EPA, “encourage[s] facilities to identify and implement opportunities to achieve further methane emission reductions.[xvi]” This type of a voluntary guideline is not intensive enough. A more comprehensive, obligatory policy is necessary in order to mitigate methane emissions and reduce the chance of serious public safety risks.

Last year, the state of Massachusetts passed a law that strengthened rules on monitoring and repairing natural gas leaks. The law requires utilities to classify gas leaks on a 3-grade scale, depending on how hazardous they are, and also requires them to fix all but the least hazardous of leaks whenever road construction projects expose a pipeline. The law not only requires utilities to repair leaks faster and recover costs in a timely manner, but also has provisions that will allow them to bring natural gas service to more Massachusetts residents.[xvii] This sort of a holistic and compulsory policy is essential to addressing methane leaks at the national level.

 

Recommendation

Create a national regulation under the EPA’s existing legislative mandate (the Clean Air Act) which:

  • Requires gas companies to assign a grade to all reported leaks based on a uniform classification system.
  • Requires gas companies to register any reported leaks with the appropriate department.
  • Requires utilities to register any construction projects that would expose leaky pipes, so that appropriate actions may be taken to fix the leaks.
  • Authorizes gas companies to design and offer programs to customers that increase the “availability, affordability, and feasibility” of natural gas services.[xviii]

 

Explanation and Analysis

The regulation of natural gas pipelines is becoming increasingly salient as the benefits associated with consuming natural gas as an alternative to oil or coal become clearer. Furthermore, the combination of the shale boom (taking place in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas) and antiquated pipelines across the country makes the regulation of methane emissions from leaks ever more pertinent.

 

SWOT Analysis

Strengths: Methane emissions will be significantly reduced; utilities will be required to repair leaks faster and to recoup costs of repairs more swiftly; and utilities will be enabled to broaden their customer base for natural gas.

Weaknesses: Once the EPA implements the regulation, utilities will need to be sufficiently monitored by the appropriate regulatory agency (EPA). This will create new costs for the agency, but the EPA already regulates utilities for other sources of pollution, so the costs should not be inordinate. Another weakness of the regulation is that more federal funding (as well as state funding) would be necessary in order to help finance projects.

Opportunities: This type of legislation could be used as a template for other governments including the European Union. Currently the only policy in the EU mitigating methane emissions bundles methane together with other greenhouse gases. Although the limitations on emissions in the directive are binding, there are no proposed means of reduction. Furthermore, the current EU policy regarding methane emissions is set to expire in five years (2020).[xix]

Threats: The policy, as it was passed in Massachusetts, does not require utilities to fix all leaks, even when construction projects already expose a pipeline. This is the result of a compromise met by policymakers and utilities. The EPA’s regulations should be stringent in requiring utilities to fix all leaks, no matter how serious they are.

 

Conclusion

A comprehensive policy that regulates methane emissions is necessary at the national level. Current frameworks such as the Gas Star Gold Program, proposed by the EPA, are voluntary. A more holistic methane management policy that tracks and regulates emissions from extraction to delivery to the customer (especially in dense urban areas and in school zones) is essential. Both consumers and utilities would notice the benefits from this policy, as costs would be reduced for consumers and the customer base would be expanded for natural gas providers. The recent Harvard University report even further highlights the need for a more comprehensive policy regarding methane leaks.

 

An accompanying policy would have to create a program to help finance these types of projects with federal funds as well as matching state funds. Also, other polices regulating methane emissions from other sources, such as livestock and landfills, will become increasingly necessary and relevant.

[i] Kathryn McKain. “Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Infrastructure and Use in the Urban Region of Boston, Massachusetts.” PNAS, n.d. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/01/21/1416261112.full.pdf

[ii] Kintisch, Eli. “Boston Belching Gigantic Gobs of Greenhouse Gas.” Science, January 22, 2015. doi: 10.1126/science.aaa6387.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] John D. Keenan. An Act Relative to Naural Gas Leaks, 2014. https://malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2014/Chapter149.

[v] Susann Phillips. “Leaking City Gas Pipes Pose Climate Hazard.” StateImpact Pennsylvania. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2014/12/16/leaking-city-gas-pipes-pose-climate-hazard/.

[vi] Mohan, Geoffrey. “Planet-Warming Methane Leaking at Higher Rate, Study Finds.” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2014. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-methane-leaks-20140213-story.html.

[vii] S.E. Smith. “Study Finds Leaks in Boston’s Natural Gas Pipelines.” ENN, February 2, 2015. John D. Keenan.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Erin Ailworth. “New Law Aims to Speed Repairs to Gas Leaks – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/07/06/new-law-aims-speed-repairs-gas-leaks/KzxFpeELSPqG5kXDFAHL3I/story.html.

[x] AP. “Second Teen Dies after Plymell House Explosion.” CJOnline.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://cjonline.com/news/2014-07-09/second-teen-dies-after-plymell-house-explosion.

[xi] http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/methane/lavelle-text

[xii] EDF, Ben N. Ratner Manager. “Goldman Sachs Supports Methane Policy: Why It Matters.” Environmental Management & Sustainable Development News. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://www.environmentalleader.com/2014/07/10/125299/.

[xiii] Susann Phillips. “Leaking City Gas Pipes Pose Climate Hazard.” StateImpact Pennsylvania. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2014/12/16/leaking-city-gas-pipes-pose-climate-hazard/.

[xiv] Ailworth, Erin. “Gas Leaks Costing Mass. Consumers $1.5 B – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/07/31/gas-leaks-costing-mass-consumers/5nIv3FsJaZRwscJ48jGMsI/story.html.

[xv] US EPA, Climate Change Division. “Methane Emissions.” Overviews & Factsheets. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html.

[xvi] EPA. “Gas STAR Gold Program: Proposed Framework.” Accessed February 3, 2015. http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/documents/Gas_STAR_Gold_proposedframework.pdf#page=9.

[xvii] John D. Keenan. An Act Relative to Naural Gas Leaks, 2014. https://malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2014/Chapter149.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] European Commission. “European Commission Global Methane Reduction Actions,” June 8, 2013. http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/documents/Gas_STAR_Gold_proposedframework.pdf#page=9.

 

References

Kathryn McKain. “Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Infrastructure and Use in the Urban Region of Boston, Massachusetts.” PNAS, n.d. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/01/21/1416261112.full.pdf.

Kintisch, Eli. “Boston Belching Gigantic Gobs of Greenhouse Gas.” Science, January 22, 2015. doi: 10.1126/science.aaa6387.

John D. Keenan. An Act Relative to Naural Gas Leaks, 2014. https://malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2014/Chapter149.

Susann Phillips. “Leaking City Gas Pipes Pose Climate Hazard.” StateImpact Pennsylvania. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2014/12/16/leaking-city-gas-pipes-pose-climate-hazard/.

Mohan, Geoffrey. “Planet-Warming Methane Leaking at Higher Rate, Study Finds.” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2014. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-methane-leaks-20140213-story.html.

S.E. Smith. “Study Finds Leaks in Boston’s Natural Gas Pipelines.” ENN, February 2, 2015. John D. Keenan.

Erin Ailworth. “New Law Aims to Speed Repairs to Gas Leaks – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/07/06/new-law-aims-speed-repairs-gas-leaks/KzxFpeELSPqG5kXDFAHL3I/story.html.

  1. “Second Teen Dies after Plymell House Explosion.” CJOnline.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://cjonline.com/news/2014-07-09/second-teen-dies-after-plymell-house-explosion.

EDF, Ben N. Ratner Manager. “Goldman Sachs Supports Methane Policy: Why It Matters.” Environmental Management & Sustainable Development News. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://www.environmentalleader.com/2014/07/10/125299/.

Ailworth, Erin. “Gas Leaks Costing Mass. Consumers $1.5 B – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/07/31/gas-leaks-costing-mass-consumers/5nIv3FsJaZRwscJ48jGMsI/story.html.

US EPA, Climate Change Division. “Methane Emissions.” Overviews & Factsheets. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html.

EPA. “Gas STAR Gold Program: Proposed Framework.” Accessed February 3, 2015. http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/documents/Gas_STAR_Gold_proposedframework.pdf#page=9.

European Commission. “European Commission Global Methane Reduction Actions,” June 8, 2013. http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/documents/Gas_STAR_Gold_proposedframework.pdf#page=9.

 

Christopher Von Turk

About Christopher Von Turk

I am a junior majoring in Political Science at Davidson College, and I have a keen interest in energy and sustainability issues, in particular the Energiewende in Germany.

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