Internal report faults EPA on gas line leaks

The Environmental Protection Agency is not doing enough to prevent millions of tons of methane from leaking into the atmosphere from natural gas pipelines, according to an internal watchdog report.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General found that, while the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates pipeline leaks for safety, the EPA has no regulations regarding gas leaks. Refined natural gas is almost entirely methane, which has about 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Gas pipeline leaks in 2012 amounted to the equivalent of 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or 2.7 million cars’ emissions in a year. The leaks cost more than $192 million a year, which is passed onto consumers, researchers said.

“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,” the OIG said in its report released Friday.

"This is due largely to financial and policy barriers, including disincentives for distribution companies to repair nonhazardous leaks,” the report said.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan launched last year, along with the administration’s methane strategy released earlier this year, call on the EPA to find ways to reduce methane emissions. But the OIG said the EPA is probably not doing enough.

“The agency needs to address additional issues to better assess progress from the voluntary program and determine if future regulations are warranted,” the report said. “The EPA needs to set goals and track its progress in reducing emissions from distribution pipelines through its voluntary program.”

The OIG also recommended the EPA work with the DOT to on a joint regulatory program to stop natural gas leaks from both safety and environmental standpoints. The EPA also need to evaluate its data on natural gas leaks, since it current relies on 18-year-old studies.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said her agency “is looking forward to reviewing the OIG report as we continue our efforts to achieve methane reductions from oil and gas sector.”

The agency is currently working to collect data on leaks and understand the pipeline industry’s issues that have prevented them from taking more action, she said.