Energy Department takes steps to plug methane leaks

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday rolled out a series of initiatives meant to help pare the amount of methane escaping the nation’s natural gas pipelines, following a government report that faulted the Environmental Protection Agency for doing too little to plug the leaks.

The administrative actions include plans to write efficiency standards for energy-hungry natural gas compressor units and launch a new research and development program aimed at devising better ways to find and plug leaks.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also is urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider ways it can give gas companies the certainty that they will recover the costs of replacing leak-prone pipes, swapping out inefficient compressors and making other retrofits.

Moniz said that through a series of meetings with industry representatives, environmentalists and other stakeholders that ended Tuesday, it became clear that there is broad support to clamp down on methane leaks.

“Every day, methane escapes from natural gas transmission, storage and distribution infrastructure, costing both the natural gas industry and consumers money and raising safety concerns,” Moniz said in a blog post Tuesday. “Reducing these methane leaks can help consumers and industry save money, create jobs, modernize our energy infrastructure and protect our environment.”

The Energy Department steps — part of the climate action plan announced by President Barack Obama last year — build on voluntary industry action to clamp down on the fugitive emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas that disappears quickly from the atmosphere but does more damage while it is around.

But some environmentalists said they don’t go far enough. “Voluntary measures and new research initiatives don’t adequately protect communities and the climate,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks.

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Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, stressed that while the new initiatives and commitments announced Tuesday “are an important step,” these “voluntary commitments can only take us so far.”

“We need coordinated federal and state regulations to address methane pollution and tighten emissions standards,” Krupp said.

The Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency are considering separate — potentially much tougher — methane mandates, including restrictions on releasing natural gas at oil wells.

The EPA is already requiring companies to use so-called “green completion” equipment to capture methane and other pollution from natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations nationwide. But those mandates — which were chiefly aimed at reining in volatile organic compounds from natural gas wells — did not extend to gathering centers, pipelines and other transmission systems.

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The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said that existing pipeline maintenance programs and investments in new facilities have already reduced the number of leaks by 94 percent over the past three decades.

“These prevented emissions are equivalent to removing more than 25 million passenger vehicles from the road for one year,” said INGAA CEO Don Santa in a statement. “We are committed to go even further by establishing guidelines to reduce emissions from pipeline equipment, with a particular focus on the types of equipment with the largest emissions profile.”

Methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas, but it’s not clear how much is leaking from the nation’s energy infrastructure — or even being discharged as a byproduct of oil drilling in areas that lack the pipelines to carry the gas to market.

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The Environmental Defense Fund is coordinating a broad series of studies that aim to better document the extent of the problem.

A report by the EPA’s inspector general last week blamed most methane leaks on older distribution pipelines, which are operated by local distribution companies and carry gas to homes and businesses. The report said the EPA’s voluntary programs have not been successful in paring these pipeline leaks, often tied to older distribution lines made of cast iron pipe.

That’s in contrast to modern transmission pipelines that ferry natural gas around the country. “Virtually every mile of transmission pipeline is pipeline quality high grade steel,” said Catherine Landry, an INGAA spokeswoman.