Washington takes action to stop leaks – of natural gas

It's not just fracking that causes methane leaks. This image, from a study of satellite measurements of methane covering 2003-09, shows that natural gas wells in a New Mexico coal field produced the highest concentration of methane in the US.

Today, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule to control methane leaks from oil and gas facilities. This action follows a multi-year effort to better understand how methane was being leaked from natural gas wells, both conventional and fracked, as well as the pipelines and processing facilities that lie between users and wells. Notably, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) deserves a huge share of the credit for leading this national research effort that supports these smart new regulatory proposals.

Until these proposed rules are adopted and enforced, we remain dependent on the voluntary efforts of oil and gas companies to find and plug leaks. Even though these leaks are wasting valuable products, we know that voluntary action isn’t enough: the oil and gas industry is carelessly wasting millions of tons of gas and leaking toxic chemicals into the air. This “invisible oil spill” happens every day, and can cause serious health problems, including cancer, to workers and, often disadvantaged people, living nearby.

Cutting methane emissions is also the single fastest way to curb climate change. America’s Natural Gas Alliance points to industry self-reported data that shows that natural gas production is up, and methane emissions are down. But EDF counters that ANGA is misreading the data, and that the EPA data likely underestimate actual emissions.

That’s why we agree that there must be no delay in adopting and enforcing EPA’s new Methane Pollution Standard. It’s a low-cost strategy, uses proven technology, and will ensure that those natural gas companies who have already done the right thing won’t be undercut by companies who are cutting corners and letting the methane leak.

EDF commissioned ICF to study technologies to reduce methane leakage. Among ICF's conclusions, "Industry could cut methane emissions by 40% below projected 2018 levels at an average annual cost of less than one cent on average per thousand cubic feet of produced natural gas by adopting available emissions-control technologies and operating practices. This would require a capital investment of $2.2 billion, which Oil & Gas Journal data shows to be less than 1% of annual industry capital expenditure."

Today’s regulations are a critical step forward for our country, representing years of deliberation. In response to President Obama’s comments about action on climate change in 2013, as well as conversations with key environmental regulators in Washington, SACE joined others in calling for a program to limit total leaks to 1% of the natural gas taken out of the ground in the United States. Specifically, we recommended that regulations should eliminate routine flaring and venting of methane in well fields that lack pipeline infrastructure.

It’s a fact that some oil and gas companies will begin drilling and other work on wells without the proper pipeline infrastructure in place, requiring the use of flaring or venting. This is deliberate pollution, with the only justification the cost savings or simply avoided hassle of properly planning and sequencing well development.

According to EPA, the proposed standards for new and modified facilities are expected to reduce 340,000 to 400,000 short tons of methane in 2025. EPA is also proposing guidelines that would cover many existing facilities, which it expects will reduce 170,000 to 180,000 tons of ozone-forming VOCs and 1,900 to 2,500 tons of air toxics in 2025. EPA’s proposed standards are intended to complement voluntary efforts, including EPA’s Methane Challenge Program, and require oil and gas companies to:

  • Find and repair leaks;
  • Capture natural gas from the completion of hydraulically fractured oil wells;
  • Limit emissions from new and modified pneumatic pumps; and
  • Limit emissions from several types of equipment used at natural gas transmission compressor stations, including compressors and pneumatic controllers.

We are looking forward to working with our allies to review these important new regulations and provide comments during the official 60-day comment period. We are hopeful that these regulations will receive support and be implemented without costly delays caused by litigation.

What else needs to be done about natural gas leaks? One issue that needs to be tackled is the problem of leaks from natural gas pipelines, especially older pipelines that deliver natural gas to homes and businesses. As a recent report by the National Regulatory Research Institute notes,

Safety drives the motive for pipeline replacement, which also allows utilities to grow their rate base and profits. Gas utilities have shown less enthusiasm toward other actions to reduce methane emissions, presumably because they offer little profit opportunities and have negligible safety risks. The ultimate question boils down to whether state utility commissions should reshape utility incentives for reducing methane emissions, other than from pipe replacement, in the future.

So far, the leading effort to address this problem are the American Gas Association’s voluntary guidelines. Can they get the job done? Or should the US Environmental Protection Agency step in to regulate these pipelines for leaks? Or should this issue be left up to state regulators and the natural gas utilities themselves?  What do you think?

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