Report: Lack of Oversight by EPA Allows Dangerous Methane Leaks

Known natural gas leaks in Boston. (Image Credit: EDF)

Known natural gas leaks in Boston. (Image Credit: EDF)

A lack of oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for natural gas distribution pipelines is responsible for the release of millions of tons annually of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2, according to a report issued today by that agency’s Office of Inspector General.

The study found that EPA’s reliance on voluntary industry compliance with guidelines, instead of regulations, allows the equivalent of 13 million metric tons of CO2, to leak from aging pipelines each year. Most leaks are thought to come from 93,000 miles of old cast and wrought iron pipelines, with the majority of them (82%) in just ten states: New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Alabama, and Missouri.

An introduction to the report found that:

The EPA has placed little focus and attention on reducing methane emissions from pipelines in the natural gas distribution sector. In 2012, the EPA stated its intent to continue to evaluate the appropriateness of regulating methane.

The 2013 Climate Action Plan calls for the EPA, in conjunction with other federal agencies, to develop a comprehensive interagency strategy to address methane emissions. The EPA does not currently regulate methane emissions from the distribution sector and has not partnered with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates pipeline safety, to control methane leaks. The EPA has a voluntary program to address methane leaks—Natural Gas STAR—but its efforts through this program have resulted in limited reductions of methane emissions from distribution pipelines. This is due largely to financial and policy barriers, including disincentives for distribution companies to repair nonhazardous leaks.

The agency needs to address additional issues to better assess progress from the voluntary program and determine if future regulations are warranted. The EPA needs to set goals and track its progress in reducing emissions from distribution pipelines through its voluntary program. Also, the EPA needs to evaluate data from ongoing external studies to determine their usefulness for validating or updating its distribution pipeline emission factors. The emission factors that the EPA uses are based on a 1996 study, which has a high level of uncertainty. Two non-EPA groups are conducting studies that may be useful to the EPA. However, the EPA’s involvement in the design or protocols of these studies has been limited.

To read the entire report, click here.


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