Fast Facts

The interstate pipeline system that transports natural gas has generally been reliable, but interruptions can be serious. For example, 7,000 homes and businesses in Rhode Island didn't have heat during a weeklong service outage in January 2019.

However, because the system has been reliable, the commission responsible for overseeing its reliability—the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—doesn't routinely review pipeline operator reports that could help it better identify and respond to future risks.

Demands on the pipeline system are increasing, and our recommendations will help the Commission ensure service continues to be reliable.

cooking with gas

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

Available information indicates that the transportation of natural gas by interstate transmission pipelines has been generally reliable. Using reports submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees the reliability of service provided by interstate transmission pipelines, GAO found that interruptions in natural gas service without advance notice to customers occurred an average of 28 times a year from 2015 to 2019. In contrast, in a single year (2018), every electric power consumer in the United States, on average, went without power for 5.8 hours. However, gas interruptions usually did not result in a complete loss of service to affected consumers. Representatives of natural gas industry sectors—including gas distribution companies, which typically rely on interstate transmission pipelines for access to natural gas—agreed that the transportation of natural gas via pipelines is generally reliable.

Selected Elements in the Production, Transmission, and Distribution Sectors of the U.S. Natural Gas Supply Chain

Selected Elements in the Production, Transmission, and Distribution Sectors of the U.S. Natural Gas Supply Chain

Industry representatives and state officials told GAO that risks to the reliability of natural gas service on interstate transmission pipelines could increase in the future due to more intensive use, driven by greater domestic gas production and use by electric power plants. However, because natural gas service has consistently been reliable, FERC does not routinely use all available information—including reports provided by natural gas transmission pipeline operators on the frequency and effects of service interruptions—to identify, assess, and respond to risks. Maintaining the reliable transportation of natural gas, which is integral to ensuring reliable energy service, involves understanding and being prepared to respond to risks as they emerge. By not routinely using all available information to identify and assess potential risks to the reliability of service on interstate transmission pipelines, FERC is not well positioned to respond, if necessary, to changes in the natural gas industry in order to ensure consumers continue to have reliable service.

Why GAO Did This Study

The interstate transmission pipeline system transports natural gas from production areas to large-volume customers, such as gas distribution companies, which provide natural gas to millions of residential and commercial consumers. Interruptions in the service provided by transmission pipelines can have serious effects, such as when about 7,000 homes and businesses in Rhode Island went without heat for a week in January 2019.

GAO was asked to review federal oversight of service interruptions involving interstate natural gas transmission pipelines. This report examines: (1) service interruptions on these pipelines and (2) emerging risks and the extent to which FERC identifies and assesses these risks.

GAO analyzed data and interviewed officials from relevant federal agencies; interviewed states' public utility commissions, interstate transmission pipeline operators, natural gas and electric industry associations, and standards-setting associations and surveyed a random sample of gas distribution companies.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO recommends that FERC: (1) use available information, such as reports by transmission pipeline operators on service interruptions, to identify and assess risks to the reliability of this service and (2) develop an approach to respond, as appropriate, to any identified risks. FERC agreed to establish a process to incorporate such information into its ongoing efforts to monitor and address reliability of interstate transmission pipeline service.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 1. FERC should use available information, such as reports by transmission pipeline operators on service interruptions, to identify and assess risks to the reliability of natural gas transmission service. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In a letter to Chairman Joe Manchin, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources dated 3/22/2021, FERC notes that Commission staff have initiated efforts to catalogue two years of the service interruption reports from transmission pipeline operators into a database to understand how this information could potentially be used to identify reliability risks to interstate natural gas transmission service. These reports are provided by interstate natural gas transmission pipeline operators detailing the frequency and effects of service interruptions. The letter further notes that the information provided in the pipeline outage reports is not standardized, and some information provisions are left to the discretion of the natural gas pipeline company. The letter did not provide an expected date to complete work to fulfill this recommendation.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 2. FERC should develop and document an approach to respond, as appropriate, to risks it identifies to the reliability of natural gas transmission service. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In comments to GAO-20-658, FERC outlined several ongoing efforts to monitor and report on the structure and operation of natural gas markets and transportation, and stated that that FERC would establish a process to incorporate the serious interruption of service reports into the Commission's ongoing efforts in monitoring and addressing the reliability of the interstate natural gas pipeline grid. After FERC has completed actions in response to the first recommendation in GAO-20-658 (use available information--such as serious interruptions of service reports--to identify and assess risks to the reliability of natural gas transmission service), GAO will confirm how this information has been incorporated into FERC's monitoring and reporting efforts. In addition, in a letter to Chairman Joe Manchin, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources dated 3/22/2021, FERC noted that in the Commission's opinion it appears that no federal agency has responsibility to ensure the reliability of the interstate natural gas pipeline system, and that Congressional action providing exclusive or comprehensive authority over natural gas pipeline reliability matters may be warranted.

Full Report

GAO Contacts