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EPA Strategy on Methane Leaks Is Full of Holes, Inspector General Says

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been doing a lackluster job of addressing methane emissions from natural gas distribution pipelines, and more than $192 million in natural gas was lost in 2011 through pipeline leaks, according to the agency's Inspector General (IG).

In a 37-page report released Friday, four members of the IG office -- Rick Beusse, Erica Hauck, Kevin Good and Richard Jones -- said the EPA hasn't issued regulations to control methane emissions from distribution lines. The agency also has not partnered with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to control those types of leaks, or developed a strategy to address barriers that are blocking efforts to mitigate leaks in distribution lines.

"While the Natural Gas STAR program has been successful in reducing methane from other segments of the industry, this voluntary program has achieved limited reductions from leaking distribution pipelines, due largely to financial and policy barriers," the IG report said. "For example, LDCs [local distribution companies] generally have had to bear the upfront capital expenditures to repair leaks, while the savings from these repairs have accrued to the consumer, thus creating a disincentive for LDCs to repair non-hazardous leaks.

"While the natural gas distribution sector is not the largest emitter of methane, it is one of the industry sectors included in the 2014 interagency methane strategy. The EPA should partner with PHMSA to reduce methane emissions from both a safety and environmental perspective, and develop a strategy to address financial and policy barriers. The EPA also needs to set goals and track its progress in reducing emissions from distribution pipelines through voluntary approaches to determine if future regulation would be appropriate."

The IG recommended that the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation direct the agency to work with PHMSA to address methane leaks from a safety and environmental standpoint. It also recommended that the agency develop and implement a strategy to address financial and policy barriers to repairing the leaks; establish annual performance goals for reducing methane emissions from distribution lines; and make an annual assessment of whether its goals are being met, and make changes if necessary.

The IG said EPA had agreed with most of its recommendations, but the last one was considered unresolved.

"[EPA] stated that it would continue its efforts to evaluate data and assess potential opportunities that could be taken to further address emissions from the distribution sector," the IG report said. "While we support the agency's efforts to continuously assess opportunities to address these emissions, to meet the intent of this recommendation, the EPA needs to develop a performance measure for the distribution sector alone that assesses progress in meeting established goals for reducing methane emissions. Progress should then be monitored using this distribution sector-specific measure."

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