February 2024 Vol. 79 No. 2


Washington Watch: Methane Emission Standards Hit Pipelines; but More Gently than Proposed

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued final methane performance standards for natural gas controllers and compressors, which will require midstream and interstate pipelines to take a new look at their emission controls.  

The standards affect operations throughout the oil and natural gas industry where companies do extraction, distribution and transportation. For the pipeline industry, the key provisions cover wet and dry seal compressors, controllers and rod packing, and in those instances, set leak detection, repair and reporting deadlines. 

This final rule is the result of a decade-long push and pull at the EPA with the Obama industry roping pipelines into the methane push, then the Trump administration publishing pipeline-friendly standards and the Biden EPA toughening them up substantially – first in a proposed rule in 2021 and then again in a supplemental proposal at the end of 2022.  

In the final 2023 Biden EPA rule, some of the proposed revisions are softened while others are close to those in the 2022 proposed rule, which pipeline companies objected to.  

One of the issues that has not been resolved is how these new regulations will dovetail with a different set of EPA regulations, issued in proposed form last summer, that update the existing Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP), referred to as Subpart W. When finalized, pipelines will have to report their methane emissions to the EPA, allowing environmental groups to use those reports to allege methane emission overages under this new final rule.  

That would come into play particularly with the new Super-Emitter Response Program established by the final rule. Both the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) heavily criticized several aspects of that new Subpart W program when it was proposed.  

As proposed, the Super-Emitter Response Program would have allowed third parties to use GHG reports on methane releases to look for methane releases above 100 kg/hr, report those releases to the company and force first an investigation and then, if warranted, repair of the leak. 

The final rule reduces third-party leeway and requires an environmental group, for example, to take its data first to the EPA, which would examine it for accuracy. If the EPA determines that the certified third party’s information is accurate and complete, it will issue a notice to the potential source requiring information regarding its compliance with emission regulations and requiring an investigation to begin within five days of the notice and conclude within 15 days. 

An INGAA spokeswoman says the Super Emitter Program is “improved, but still problematic. Some improvements were made in the final rule; more procedural rigor and additional EPA oversight was incorporated into the program,” she conceded.  

“Unfortunately, EPA did not adjust the Super Emitter size threshold to include a duration requirement, and there is concern that normal processes like blowdowns could get caught in the program and create burden (and perhaps reputational harm) for pipeline companies.” 

However, the EPA disregarded INGAA’s concerns that satellite detection and remote sensing equipment on an aircraft not be used by third parties in the Super-Emitter program because they “have yet reached the threshold needed to be part of a regulatory program that gives rise to legal obligations by the owners and operators of covered sources.” 

Elsewhere, one of the biggest issues for INGAA was a new, first-time emission restriction for dry seal compressors of 3 cfsm per seal. INGAA said there was no data supporting that or any other dry seal emission standard. 

“If EPA continues to believe that dry seal centrifugal compressors should be subjected to a standard, it must first obtain data – both on cost and, more importantly, feasibility and reasonableness of the standard itself – to support a proper BSER analysis,” INGAA argued. “Any other approach would be arbitrary and capricious.” BSER stands for “best system of emission reduction.” 

In the final rule, the EPA budged and nudged the emission ceiling to 10 scfm per compressor seal. It also committed to obtain information on dry seal emissions that come out of the new GHG reporting rule once it is finalized. “Based on information received, the EPA may revisit and revise the 10-scfm-per-seal volumetric flow rate performance standard for compressors equipped with dry seals in the future,” EPA stated. 

Seal repair must be conducted within 90 calendar days from the date of the volumetric emissions measurement. If the repair of a wet (where the ceiling is set at a less controversial 3 scfm) or dry seal is technically infeasible, would require a vent blowdown or compressor station shutdown, or would be unsafe to repair during operation of the unit, it can be delayed.  

However, the repair must be completed during the next scheduled compressor station shut down for maintenance, after a scheduled vent blowdown, or within two years, whichever is earliest.

EPA had wanted to institute a 2-scfm emissions limit for rod packing, while INGAA argued for a work practice standard instead. This would have obligated a pipeline to check the rods on a compressor annually and if there was a 2-scfm exceedance, the company would be obligated to fix the leak. In the final rule, EPA set a work practice requirement.  

What did not get ameliorated in the final rule is the requirement that pneumatic controllers, now called “process” controllers, are held to a zero emissions standard.  

“This standard will result in very costly and time-consuming upgrades to the entire facility triggered by the addition of gas-driven pneumatics,” the INGAA spokeswoman pointed out. “However, companies will have 425 days to comply with this requirement, which is a much longer timeframe than the original 60 days proposed by EPA.”  

Pipeline “safety” bill moving through Congress

Congress appears to be moving to pass a quadrennial pipeline safety bill notable for its absence of controversy and, for that matter, much in the way of new safety mandates. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the Pipeline Efficiency and Safety (PIPES) Act of 2023 (H.R. 6494) on December 6 by a voice vote.  

This bill must be passed by both the House Energy and Commerce, Science and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committees, which would appear to be a low bar, given the absence of any partisan disagreements. The major pro-pipeline provision in the bill requires the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to issue a final class location rule three months after enactment. Such a rule has been long sought by INGAA. 

“The Class Location rule, which has been a top priority for the organization for more than 20 years, will allow our members to use modern, more environmentally friendly inspection technologies to ensure the safety of pipelines where populations have moved nearby,” commented INGAA.  

Containing no new safety mandates on pipelines, the bill’s focus on pipelines extends to their ability to carry carbon dioxide and hydrogen in addition to natural gas, a reflection of the Biden administration’s focus on alternative energy sources. It mandates minimum safety requirements for the injection, extraction and storage of carbon dioxide incidental to pipeline transit. Also, minimum safety requirements mandate that vapor dispersion modeling be used by all operators of carbon dioxide pipeline facilities to identify high consequence locations. 

Pipeline groups may be happy with the bill, but pipeline safety groups are not. “While we were hoping to make more significant progress to make pipelines safer, we appreciated the bipartisan efforts of the committee’s leadership,” Pipeline Safety Trust (PST) Executive Director Bill Caram said. “We still have a long way to go to eliminate the hazards from our nation’s pipelines, but this legislation would take some positive steps.” 

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