December 12, 2019

Udall, Senators Urge Stronger Methane Limits in Senate Pipeline Legislation

Senators raise concerns that moving forward without addressing gas pipeline leaks presents significant risks to public safety and worsens climate change

Unchecked leaks in natural gas pipelines release 1.3 million metric tons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas

WASHINGTON— Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), along with U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pushed to amend legislation pending in the Senate to include strong provisions to prevent dangerous methane leaks that worsen climate change.

The PIPES Act, which was reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee in July, would reauthorize pipeline safety programs at the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency charged with regulating pipelines for safety and environmental purposes. The legislation pending before the Senate currently does not include provisions that would require natural gas facility operators to monitor and fix methane leaks. 

“We write to express our concern about moving forward with S.2299, the PIPES ACT, without including stronger safeguards to ensure that methane leaks from natural gas pipelines are adequately addressed,” the senators wrote. “Leaking pipeline are a serious safety hazard that can lead to catastrophic consequences, including explosions, fire, evacuations, and death. Additionally, leaking pipelines contribute significantly to emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is especially harmful for near-term climate change.” 

The senators continued, “According to the Environmental Protection Agency’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 to address leaking pipelines could be cost-effectively mitigated using currently available methods and technology.”

The senators concluded their letter, noting, “By including our amendment, we believe the PIPES Act would be reasonably strengthened to address this major safety and climate concern and be on a path to quick bicameral passage and becoming law in the 116th Congress.”

At the same time PHMSA has so far failed to require methane leak detection and mitigation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also proposed a rule to eliminate federal requirements that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities. The Trump administration’s proposed rule would also reopen the question of whether the E.P.A. had the legal authority to regulate methane as a pollutant. This continues the Trump administration’s pattern of failing to act on public safety and climate change, including addressing leaking methane.

Udall and other Senate Democrats’ amendment is based on the METHANE Act (S. 2469) introduced in September, which would require owners and operators of pipelines and pipeline facilities to use the best available technology to detect and repair leaking pipelines. Methane is a significant contributor to climate change, as the greenhouse gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20-year period. 

Mitigating methane leaks using existing technology could save consumers and the industry up to a half billion dollars per year.

The full text of the senators’ letter can be found HERE and below.

Dear Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cantwell: 

We write to express our concern about moving forward with S.2299, the PIPES ACT, without including stronger safeguards to ensure that methane leaks from natural gas pipelines are adequately addressed. Leaking pipeline are a serious safety hazard that can lead to catastrophic consequences, including explosions, fire, evacuations, and death. Additionally, leaking pipelines contribute significantly to emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is especially harmful for near-term climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’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 to address leaking pipelines could be cost-effectively mitigated using currently available methods and technology. 

A 2016 analysis by ICF International concluded that leak detection and repair from the oil and gas sector could cut emissions 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.

In addition to the safety concerns from these unknown and uncontrolled natural gas leaks, methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas emission. It is about 84 times the potency of carbon dioxide over the first couple decades following its release. While carbon dioxide represents a continuing, long-term threat, methane drives near-term climate effects and is responsible for approximately 25% of the global warming we are experiencing right now. 

Therefore, we believe that every effort should be made to keep our produced natural gas and methane in pipelines and out of the atmosphere where leaks and releases can also lead to catastrophic accidents, safety issues and global warming pollution. Fortunately, leak detection and repair technology is very advanced and readily available. Off-the-shelf technology to detect leaks exists already in the form of aerial drones mounted with surveillance equipment, automobiles with sniffer technologies, and a variety of other advanced technologies to detect and repair leaks. These methods are needed to replace the dominant way we currently detect leaks: with our eyes and noses.

For too long we have relied on members of the public to report the sight or smell of gas and phone it in, causing an undue and unnecessary safety burden on the public, rather than the companies responsible for this infrastructure. This should not be the responsibility of your average citizen. This should be a basic minimum standard required by pipeline companies and others who produce and transmit natural gas.

We have filed a germane and reasonable amendment to S.2299 to address methane leaks from pipelines and the relevant committees in the House of Representatives are moving forward with similar action. A short summary of our amendment is:

Sets a standard of best available technology for operators to capture natural gas when making pipeline repairs so methane isn’t flagrantly emitted into the atmosphere. 

- Sets a standard of best available technology for operators to monitor their pipelines for leaks.

- Directs adequate investments in operators’ replacement and repair programs for known types of leaky pipelines.

- Sets reporting requirements for natural gas release incidents to a more realistic level to track how much methane is being released (from current 3 million cubic feet to 50,000 cubic feet). The new threshold of 50,000 cubic feet is the average monthly natural gas usage of approximately 9-10 homes. (Whereas 3 million cubic feet is the approximate natural gas usage of 9-10 homes over nearly 5 years.)

By including our amendment, we believe the PIPES Act would be reasonably strengthened to address this major safety and climate concern and be on a path to quick bicameral passage and becoming law in the 116th Congress.

Sincerely,