PHMSA Proposes Vital Standards to Enhance Safety, Cut Methane from Nation’s Pipeline Network

Stronger oversight of the 3 million miles of U.S. pipelines critical for protecting communities and climate

May 5, 2023
Matt McGee, 512-691-3478,

(WASHINGTON ) The U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed much-needed protections to improve oversight and reduce pollution from the nation’s network of natural gas pipelines today.

"Natural gas pipelines are ubiquitous in our neighborhoods, cities, parks and rural communities and pipeline leaks are both safety risksand a source of methane pollution that accelerates climate change,” said Erin Murphy, Senior Attorney for Environmental Defense Fund. “PHMSA’s proposal is a welcome step that reflects important updates to existing standards, including unlocking the use of advanced technologies to find and fix more pipeline leaks. Strong federal standards to reduce pipeline leaks are critical for delivering on the Biden administration's commitment to curb climate-warming methane pollution while increasing public health and safety.”

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the near-term. Natural gas is transported around the country in a network of approximately three million miles of pipelines, and leakage from this infrastructure is a major source of methane emissions. Recently, researchers found that gas gathering pipelines in the Permian Basin leak 14 times more methane than EPA’s inventory estimates.

Pipeline infrastructure also has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities that can be remedied by more effective oversight. Just last year, scientists found that leaks on distribution pipelines tended to be located at higher densities in neighborhoods with more people of color and lower household incomes. And U.S. counties with more socially vulnerable populations have been found to have a higher density of natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines, according to peer-reviewed research.

“PHMSA has a powerful opportunity to protect communities across the country, including those disproportionately impacted by polluting infrastructure, while delivering on the administration’s climate goals,” added Murphy. “The technologies needed to find and fix harmful emissions are here, they’re cost-effective and they’re being used in the field. All while creating jobs and stopping wasteful emissions.”

PHMSA’s proposal issued today responds to Congress’s express directive in the PIPES Act of 2020 to strengthen pipeline oversight by incorporating commercially available, advanced leak detection technologies and analytics. The proposal will improve community safety and reduce climate pollution by requiring operators to conduct more frequent leak surveys using more effective technologies, to repair more leaks identified on their systems more quickly, and to expand the mileage of gas gathering lines that must be leak surveyed. The proposal also requires operators to minimize intentional natural gas releases such as equipment venting and blowdowns, reducing product loss and methane emissions.

PHMSA has an important opportunity to swiftly finalize standards with clear and rigorous definitions for leak detection technology performance, detailed reporting requirements to understand safety and environmental impacts and expanded applicability of leak survey and repair standards to gathering pipelines. Gathering infrastructure has rapidly expanded over the last 20 years as natural gas production has increased, and there are now 435,000 miles of gathering lines in the U.S. Even with a much-needed gathering lines rule finalized by PHMSA in 2021, only about 90,000 miles of these pipelines are subject to basic safety requirements like emergency planning — and only 20,000 miles of gathering lines are required to conduct regular leak surveys. PHMSA should continue to expand protective standards for gathering line management to ensure greater safety and environmental protection.

PHMSA’s proposal is an important part of the White House methane action plan, as it addresses leaks from pipeline sources that are not otherwise covered by existing standards. Recently, EPA issued a protective supplemental proposal under the Clean Air Act to reduce methane pollution from new and existing sources in the oil and gas sector. In the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress also recently adopted the Methane Emission Reduction Program, which, when implemented, can help to further reduce methane pollution.

Next, PHMSA will hold a 60-day comment period on the proposal, and it will also be reviewed by the PHMSA Gas Pipeline Advisory Committee.

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