July 30, 2019

Udall Files Critical Amendments to Improve Senate Pipeline Safety Act Reauthorization

Udall amendments would use technology to catch methane leaks & require safety standards and location mapping for dangerous, unregulated natural gas “gathering” lines

WASHINGTON – Ahead of a Wednesday morning markup of the PIPES Act of 2019 (S. 2299) in the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced three critical amendments to the bill to improve public safety and reduce dangerous leaks. The PIPES Act would reauthorize the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) pipeline safety programs for the next four years, fiscal years 2020 through 2023.   

While Congress, PHMSA, and the oil and gas pipeline industries have made progress on safety in recent years, including in the pending Senate bill, major gaps in safety standards remain, especially in areas with booming oil and gas production. In addition, the threat of climate change means that leaks of methane – a greenhouse gas super pollutant – need urgent attention from all federal regulators.  While PHMSA safety standards apply to interstate transmission pipelines and natural gas utility lines, hundreds of thousands of miles of natural gas “gathering” lines that go from the wellhead to processing facilities and transmission lines have been left unregulated for decades, despite carrying the same risks as other regulated pipelines. Natural gas (methane) leaks from pipelines create dangerous conditions for the public, and they also contribute to and accelerate climate change, as methane is eighty-four times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the first twenty years following its release.

“I respect and appreciate the Commerce Committee’s work so far, but we cannot turn a blind eye to 435,000 miles of unregulated gas gathering pipelines – especially when we don’t even know how close they are to our homes, families, and communities,” Udall said. “As oil and gas and residential development increase, including in New Mexico, more and more lives are at risk from these unregulated pipelines, and history shows we cannot rely on PHMSA to act on its own. It also defies belief that, despite the widespread availability of 21st century technology, the primary leak detectors for natural gas pipelines are the public’s own eyes and noses. Given the looming threat of climate change, we can and must do better in the year 2019. Methane is a climate change super-pollutant and we don’t even know how much is being released from pipelines. That needs to change.” 

Udall filed three amendments improve the bill by protecting public safety and reducing methane leaks. 

  • – Udall Amendment #1 requires PHMSA to update its leak detection requirements by requiring companies to use the best available technology to capture natural gas when making pipeline repairs; to use the best available technology to look for pipeline leaks; to adequately invest in replacement and repair programs for known types of leaky pipelines; and changes the reporting requirements for gas incidents to a more realistic level to track how much gas is being released (from 3 million cubic feet to 50,000 cubic feet).

    According to EPA’s latest greenhouse gas inventory, leaks and routine operations in the transmission and storage component of the gas supply chain lead to 1.3 million metric tons of methane released per year.  A recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that fifty to ninety percent of the methane releases attributable to maintenance activity conducted to address leaky pipelines could be cost-effectively mitigated using currently available methods and technology.

    In addition to safety benefits, detecting leaks in pipelines could dramatically cut down on methane pollution by knowing where to prioritize fixes.  A 2016 analysis by ICF International concluded that emissions from the oil and gas sector could be cut by over 40% using equipment already available on the market at the time, at a cost of less than 1 penny per thousand cubic feet of gas produced.  Moreover, the value of natural gas savings gas to both industry and consumers could amount to well over a half-billion dollars a year.
  • – Udall amendment #2 regulates natural gas gathering lines of six inches and larger, which would be approximately over 150,000 miles of gathering lines.

    Despite years of debate, 435,000 miles of natural gas gathering lines remain unregulated by PHMSA even though many are the same size and pressure of regulated interstate transmission lines.  Due to increasing development of oil and natural gas in the United States, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America estimates that over 300,000 additional miles of new onshore gas gathering lines are likely to be constructed over the next 20 years.   
  • – Udall amendment #3 requires mapping information of those regulated gathering lines to be collected by the Department of Transportation.

    Although often in rural areas, these gathering lines can run by numerous homes and businesses, especially as new residential and new oil and gas development encroach upon each without basic awareness or a reliable mapping inventory of gathering line locations.  Six inch gathering lines can have a hazard radius in the range of 70 to 165 feet, putting homes and people in danger in the case of a rupture with an ignition.  Even smaller leaks from gathering lines can migrate into nearby homes causing tragedies, such as last year in Midland, TX, a three-year old girl died after a leaking gathering line 20 feet from her home filled the home with gas and exploded.