July 2023, Vol. 250, No. 7


New Leak Detection Rules for Pipelines Proposed

By Stephen Barlas, Contributing Editor, Washington, D.C.

New Leak Detection Rules for Pipelines Proposed 

(P&GJ) — The federal pipeline safety agency has proposed major changes to its leak detection, based not on concerns about safety but rather in order to reduce methane emissions based on their contribution to climate change.  

The move to comply with a provision in 2020 Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act broadens the agency’s mission to environmental concerns which may turn out, congressional authorization aside, to be a very controversial move. 

Part of PHMSA’s rational for this proposed rule, aside from injecting environmental concerns into the agency’s mandate, is the belief that although the pipeline industry has made some headway with voluntary industry efforts to reduce methane leaks, “those efforts generally exhibit shortcomings (including meager participation, limited application to different pipeline facilities, absence of meaningful leak reduction targets, or a lack of transparency, limited application to natural gas pipelines), underscoring the need for timely federal regulatory intervention.”  

That characterization and the picture of the industry it might create has drawn criticism. 

“The proposed rule’s preamble creates the impression pipes are leaking left and right,” stated Emily Mallen, an attorney at Akin Gump in Washington, D.C., who has been fielding concerned phone calls from transmission pipeline clients. “Industry will not be happy with that characterization. Pipelines have been able to say we are safe. The industry is proud of its safety record. If they start getting dinged by PHMSA for leaks based on environmental protection principles, it could give the impression that their systems are not safe. That won’t sit well with the industry.” 

Section 118 of the PIPES Act gives PHMSA new authority to force companies to plug both “fugitive emissions” and “vented emissions” from more than 2.7 million miles of gas transmission, distribution and gathering pipelines, along with other gas pipeline facilities. It also applies to 403 underground natural gas storage facilities and 165 LNG facilities, which, according to PHMSA, will help in “improving public safety, promoting environmental justice, and addressing the climate crisis.” 

 “I do think PHMSA has some ground to consider environmental impacts of leaks,” Mallen explained, but what concerns me is that this rule goes too far. The proposed rule focuses a lot on climate. By emphasizing so much on climate, pipeline safety may become less of a bipartisan issue and may result in PHMSA being further politicized.” 

Key Republicans in the House are already investigating the May 5, 2023, leak detection proposal, among other PHMSA regulatory efforts. On May 9, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security Chair Jeff Duncan (R-SC) sent a letter to Tristan Brown, acting administrator at PHMSA, asking a number of questions about different issues. One item in that letter asked with regard to the leak detection proposal whether PHMSA is required to conduct a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis so all new regulations are cost-effective.  

That query added, “Has PHMSA estimated the compliance costs of the proposed regulation? How much does PHMSA expect the proposed regulation will increase the price of natural gas for American consumers? How does PHMSA estimate environmental costs and benefits? Does PHMSA estimate environmental costs and benefits related to climate change that are incurred outside the United States for use in agency rulemakings? Does PHMSA utilize the Social Cost of Carbon, the Social Cost of Methane, or other tools or models to estimate environmental costs related to climate change? How does PHMSA define ‘equity benefits,’ a term used in the May 5, 2023, proposal? Please describe PHMSA’s statutory authority and methodology for estimating ‘equity benefits’ for use in agency rulemaking.”     

PHMSA’s current rules are narrowly focused on public safety risks associated with ignition of large-volume, instantaneous releases and accumulated gas; they are unclear regarding when, if at all, most leaks must be repaired. Small methane leaks do not have to be repaired. Some pipelines do have to promptly repair “hazardous leaks” but that term is not defined in terms of risks to the environment.   

Current regulations tolerate significant intentional emissions of methane and other gases, even in non-emergency situations, by allowing venting, blowdowns and other large-volume releases of gas. 

The proposed rule establishes the Advanced Leak Detection Program (ALDP) performance standard, which would require operators to grade and repair all leaks (except those from compressor stations), and not merely those that pose public safety risks. Additionally, operators would be required to: 

  • establish minimum criteria for leak grades and associated repair schedules prioritized by safety and environmental hazard  
  • require reductions in intentional sources of methane emissions by minimizing releases associated with blowdowns  
  • incorporate explicit reference to environmental harm among the “hazards” addressed in certain sections of the pipeline safety regulations 

PHMSA proposed an effective date for this rulemaking of six months following publication of a final rule in the Federal Register.   

Leak detection equipment would have a minimum sensitivity of 5 parts per million (ppm) or less.  Operators would select their leak detection equipment based on a documented analysis that considers the gas transported, the size, configuration, operating parameter, and operating environment of the system.  An operator would be allowed to seek PHMSA review of alternative leak detection technology.   

Repair requirements would be based on how dangerous a leak was, from Grade 1, the most serious, to Grade 3. Grade 1 leaks present an urgent or emergency situation requiring that the operator take “immediate and continuous” action to eliminate the hazards to people or the environment.   

The NPRM classifies the following as a Grade 1 leak: (1) any reading of 80% lower explosive limit (LEL) or higher in a substructure from which gas would likely migrate to the outside wall of a building; (2) any leak that can be seen, heard, or felt; and (3) any leak reportable as an incident under Part 191 of the pipeline safety regulations.  

PHMSA estimates the totality of the 11 new requirements would result in a reduction in unintentional methane emissions of 72% from regulated gathering pipelines, 17% from transmission pipelines and 44% to 62% from distribution pipelines. Further, PHMSA estimates the total avoided blowdown emissions under the proposed rule correspond to 43% of baseline blowdown emissions. PHMSA estimates the proposed rule would result in net benefits between $341 million and $1,440 million per year.

“Whether PHMSA has accurately estimated the costs and benefits of the proposed rule will certainly be a significant issue that industry will raise in their comments,” said Susan Olenchuk, a partner at Van Ness Feldman. “Also, the elevation of environmental protection to be on par with safety will likely be an issue.” 

She added that PHMSA recently encountered criticism from some members of Congress for “transforming” the Pipeline Safety Act into an extension of environmental regulations.    

A spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) said, “As this was mandated in the PIPES Act of 2020 we anticipated, and appreciate, this rulemaking. We cannot comment on the specifics of this proposed rule until we have had more time to review it, and we look forward to working with PHMSA to ensure that the mandate can be implemented appropriately to ensure the safe and efficient delivery of natural gas through our infrastructure.” 

Related Articles


{{ error }}
{{ comment.comment.Name }} • {{ comment.timeAgo }}
{{ comment.comment.Text }}