Solutions: Four steps to reduce natural gas leaks

Utilities and regulators have opportunities to decrease damage to the climate

EDF and Google Earth Outreach are working together through a pilot program with gas utilities across the country to demonstrate new technologies to help find, and more accurately assess, methane leaking from underground natural gas lines and other infrastructures. 

There are four basic steps that utilities, along with state and local regulators can, and should, take to identify and eliminate these environmentally harmful and wasteful leaks more rapidly and efficiently:

1. Improved monitoring technology and science

We are working with scientists, utilities and technology providers to validate new mobile monitoring equipment and develop new scientific methods to translate the data gathered into actionable information. As part of this project, EDF is analyzing methane data collected from specially-equipped Google Street View cars and publishing maps that show both leak location and relative leak size.

2. Better data means better, safer systems

More precise and frequent data on the location and relative size of methane leaks will enable gas companies and regulators to better prioritize repairs and infrastructure improvements . This information will also take what has traditionally been a safety issue for utilities and broaden the focus to include not only safety, but also the environmental- and climate-consequences of methane leaks.

By making this information more easily available, gas companies, the public and government officials can better understand the scale of the problem and tackle the problem of how to fix leaks and infrastructure more rapidly and more permanently.

3. Leak reduction goals

Setting performance goals is important for achieving any objective. That’s why we’re asking gas companies, public utility commissions and other state officials to review current leak repair criteria and establish voluntary reduction targets for those leaks that are not already regulated by state or federal requirements, and to accelerate repair for those leaks that are.

We’re also recommending that companies set these goals over a three-year period — which will bring both necessary attention and resources to this environmental threat — and urging them to publicly report their progress each year, along with any unexpected challenges or opportunities.

The American Gas Association, the trade group representing natural gas utilities, has approved voluntary guidelines [PDF] that may lead to further emissions reductions.

4. Stronger statutory and regulatory requirements

A great deal of progress can be achieved on a strictly voluntary basis. There are programs in a majority of states to facilitate accelerated risk-based replacement of pipelines in the natural gas distribution system. But stronger legal and regulatory requirements to reduce methane emissions from local distribution systems will ensure more rapid reductions in methane gas released into the environment.

Working together with utilities, state and federal government officials, trade associations and the public, we can strengthen the requirements related to the frequency of methane leak inspections; prioritization and timing of leak repairs; upgrade of mechanical fittings and aging pipelines; and reporting of information to the public.

Securing the financial, technical and human resources necessary to achieve this accelerated pace will be key to achieving this solution.