Natural gas utilities in the United States have already taken steps to reduce emissions from their systems through upgrades and modernization, but more can be done, according to American Gas Association (AGA) Chairman Gregg Kantor, who is also CEO of NW Natural.
On Wednesday AGA's board of directors released an approved set of voluntary guidelines that may lead to further emissions reductions, which may serve as a resource for AGA members to assist in evaluating potential options for distribution systems.
“Natural gas utilities continue to drive down emissions by replacing and upgrading infrastructure,” said Kantor. “These guidelines represent lessons learned in our industry for effective ways to reduce emissions from pipeline systems as part of our deep commitment to help ensure that natural gas continues to be safe for our customers and our environment.”
Pipelines and their regulators have long focused on upgrading infrastructure with a view toward safety. Lately that campaign has been getting a new push from environmentalists who have complained of the effect of methane leaks from old pipes contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and worsening climate change impacts. Those environmentalists are enlisting the aid of labor unions seeking an expanded job market. The unions have their eyes on what some estimate as an $82 billion repair job to fix and replace leaky pipes and related equipment.
In December 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that methane accounts for an estimated 9% of domestic GHG emissions (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16, 2013). The Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration estimates that less than 1.5% of the total volume of produced natural gas is released as it travels from the wellhead to homes and businesses. The AGA contends on its website that the relative amount of emissions coming from utility pipelines is less than 1%.
The new AGA guidelines have several measures that the association said may help modernize distribution systems and reduce emissions, including pipe replacement; installing low or no bleed valves in place of high bleed pneumatic devices; enhancing damage prevention programs; measures for reducing emissions during repair or replacement projects; directed inspection and maintenance programs; and pipeline repair and lining techniques.
The association noted that individual utilities can employ strategies that are appropriate for their pipeline network and geographic area in consultation with their local regulators.
“We work closely with regulators to help ensure we are delivering safe and reliable energy at affordable prices," said Kantor. "These voluntary guidelines will allow us to work on reducing emissions while continuing the consistent service our customers have come to depend on.”
The AGA noted that recent EPA data on GHG inventory revealed that only 0.24% of produced gas is emitted from systems operated by local natural gas utilities, and that nearly 90% of the emissions declines from distribution systems since 1990 are due to pipeline replacements.
The association also pointed out that in the past 25 years, natural gas utilities have installed modern plastic pipes used for delivering gas at low pressure at a rate of 30,000 miles per year, and cathodically protected steel mains used for high pressure delivery at a rate of 1,500 miles per year, both connecting new customers and upgrading existing pipeline infrastructure.
To help ease the burden of these infrastructure upgrade and modernization costs, the AGA said 38 states have already adopted specific accelerated infrastructure replacement mechanisms to allow natural gas distribution utilities to recover the costs of replacing systems on a timely basis. The association said it supports the expansion of these programs to include all utilities operating in these states, as well as the adoption of similar programs by additional states.