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The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t doing enough to prevent methane from escaping from natural gas pipelines, according to a new report from the agency’s internal watchdog.
The report, published Friday by the EPA’s Inspector General, stated that in 2011, more than $192 million worth of natural gas was lost due to leaks in pipelines. The report said that the agency, which until now has “placed little focus and attention on reducing methane emissions from pipelines in the natural gas distribution center,” needs to take steps to better prevent methane from escaping. It recommended that the EPA work with the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to try to fix the problem, a partnership President Barack Obama has also called for.
Up until now, however, the EPA has only implemented a program that encourages natural gas companies to reduce their methane emissions voluntarily, but doesn’t require them to do so. So far, that program hasn’t done enough, the report states.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps 86 times more heat as CO2 does over a 20-year period. Scientists have warned that methane emissions from the natural gas industry are a significant contributor to climate change, and in 2013, President Obama’s Climate Action Plan stated that “curbing emissions of methane is critical to our overall effort to address global climate change.”
The EPA has agreed to take the Inspector General’s recommendations to partner with PHMSA and create a plan to deal with the financial losses of methane leaks, but it has not yet agreed to other recommendations in the report, including setting performance goals for leak reduction and tracking methane emissions from natural gas pipelines.
The report states that methane leaks typically occur in older pipelines made of cast iron or unprotected steel, which are more prone to cracking and corrosion. Earlier this week, a report from the BlueGreen Alliance recommended that the U.S. replace pipelines every 10 years, rather than every 30, a sped-up timeline that would cut pollution and risk of spills as well as create jobs and increase U.S. GDP.
The Inspector General and BlueGreen Alliance’s reports are the latest of many that warn of major methane emissions from the natural gas sector. Earlier this month, a study found that 40 percent of oil and gas wells in the Marcellus shale region are predicted to fail, causing them to leak methane into the atmosphere and water. Another study from the University of Colorado Boulder in May found methane leaks from oil and gas development in Colorado were three times greater than they had been predicted to be by emissions inventory estimates.
This also isn’t the first time the EPA has been targeted for doing too little to measure or reduce methane emissions. In May, two Cornell Researchers said the EPA is drastically underestimating the potency of methane, and that not enough is being done to reduce methane emissions in the U.S. The White House issued a strategy for methane on March 28, and is expected to decide by later this year whether or not new EPA regulations on methane emissions are necessary.
By Katie Valentine of Climate Progress
Joe Romm is a Fellow at American Progress and is the editor of Climate Progress, which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called "the indispensable…