The Environmental Defense Fund and Google started a project that maps natural gas leaks in Staten Island, Indianapolis and Boston, which form just a snippet of the 1.24 million miles of pipelines that deliver the fuel to homes and businesses. In a new methodology, it also helps determine the amount that escapes into the atmosphere from each leak.
That's key because 38 states currently give utilities incentives to replace pipelines. EDF's Mark Brownstein said using his group's free tool would be one of the "smarter ways to prioritize pipeline replacement that gets you more value for each dollar spent." The EDF wants the Obama administration to reassess federal pipeline replacement protocol to more quickly remove some of the leakiest pipes.
Rewards are often paid out on a per-mile basis through surcharges or other mechanisms without regard to how significant each leak is, Brownstein said. Utilities spend $1 million to $3 million for each mile of pipeline they swap out, which is passed onto the customers through higher rates. Given the expense, it would take upwards of 30 years for most utilities to replace old, fractured cast-iron pipelines with newer plastic material, Brownstein said.
"That's not quick enough," Brownstein, associate vice president and chief counsel of the group's U.S. energy and climate program, told the Washington Examiner. "What we're suggesting is if you use the methodology ... you can do a lot to reduce the total methane emissions going into the atmosphere."
EDF's new tool comes as the Obama administration is considering how to tamp down emissions of methane — a short-lived heat-trapping pollutant that is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide and accounts for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — across several agencies. The Energy Department is spearheading how to shore up natural gas pipelines and will host its fifth and final meeting on the subject among stakeholders this month.
Brownstein wants to focus on a lesser-known agency — the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.
PHMSA sets federal safety standards for pipeline replacements. Grade 1 and Grade 2 have the most severe problems, with the former requiring immediate replacement because of potential risk to people and property. Grade 3, however, is what Brownstein referred to as a "chronic" leak — something that's sending natural gas into the air but doesn't invite safety concerns. Grade 3 pipelines require monitoring, but are usually only replaced if a Grade 1 or 2 leak sprouts nearby, if a utility already had plans for improvement or if the condition worsens upon re-evaluation. Brownstein said there's room for PHMSA to give chronic leaks more attention through using the EDF methodology to identify and replace large leaks more quickly.
The results of not replacing leaky pipes could be disastrous, like one that contributed to a March explosion in East Harlem that killed eight and has helped shed some light on the deteriorating condition of natural gas pipelines. And part of the reason residents aren't asking for more repairs now is that public awareness is low. "It's hard, frankly, for a utility to go ask a public service commission for money for a problem the public isn't aware of and frankly isn't concerned about at the moment," Brownstein noted.
An official with PHMSA said the agency is open to suggestions. But the concerns didn't appear to have top billing.
"We would be willing to have that discussion and talk about things that we could possibly do, but as far as I know we haven't looked at adjusting the classifications," the official said.
Brigham McCown, a former PHMSA chief during George W. Bush's administration, added, "I don't see PHMSA taking it that seriously."
The American Gas Association, an industry group that represents gas utilities, said the current process behind pipeline replacement works.
Lori Traweek, the association's chief operating officer and senior vice president, said that PHMSA's focus on safety combined with state regulators' emphasis on delivering reliable power at a reasonable cost has created a solid framework that delivers "co-benefits" of reducing emissions. She also credited the state-based programs with driving significant new pipeline investment.
"I think context is so critically important here, and I think there's recognition that emissions from the distribution sector is low," Traweek told the Examiner. "The fact that we're reducing those emissions from the pipeline replacement programs, keeping that in context, we're addressing what needs to be addressed."
Methane emissions from the distribution system in 2012 dropped 22.6 percent below 1990 levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas emissions inventory published in April. Much of that is owed to the increased use of plastic piping, which yields fewer emissions than the older iron pipes, the agency said.
But the state programs are a mixed bag, and some regions' infrastructure is worse than others, Brownstein noted. The Northeast, Great Lakes and some parts of California use a higher proportion of fracture-prone cast-iron pipelines than the rest of the country, and many of those older pipelines are in densely populated areas.
Still, some signs of encouragement exist, Brownstein said. He pointed to Massachusetts.
Electric and gas utility National Grid plans to upgrade its New York and Massachusetts infrastructure at a cost of $1 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively, and will use EDF's new tool to maximize the value of its repairs by honing in on the largest leaks first, said Susan Fleck, the utility's vice president of pipeline safety.
Earlier this month, Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law regulations instituted by the state utility commission that require gas utilities to detail their infrastructure replacement plans and to re-evaluate Grade 3 leaks. It also offers a rate structure designed to speed up replacements, and also allows fines ranging between $100,000 and $200,000 per violation up to $2 million for companies that run afoul of federal safety regulations.
"The utilities have a duty to maintain a safe and reliable system. The new legislation calls for the utilities to accelerate their pipe replacement and provides regulators additional penalty measures if companies violate applicable state and federal codes and laws," Amy Mahler, assistant press secretary with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, told the Examiner in an email.