Methane leaks from oil and gas production on federal lands

New proposals from EPA and BLM to curtail leaks are due out this summer.


Gas and oil production on federal lands in Western states releases large amounts of methane into the air, contributing to climate change and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year in lost royalties, according to an analysis released this week.

Gas flares contribute to methane emissions from oil and gas production.
Tim Evanson

Companies could reduce these emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, nearly 40 percent by adopting cost-effective methods already employed by some producers, according to a study by ICF International, a major consulting firm. The efforts would pay for themselves because companies would have more natural gas — mostly methane — to sell.

The report fills a missing piece of a big puzzle, which scientists, engineers and regulators are scrambling to put together. Natural gas holds promise for addressing global warming because using it to generate electricity releases fewer greenhouse gases than using coal, which provides about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity. But significant questions remain about how much those benefits are undermined by methane that leaks when companies drill and produce natural gas. 

The activist group Environmental Defense Fund, which commissioned the new report, hopes the findings inform regulators and the public, as the federal government is poised this summer to release two proposed rules. One proposal, from the Environmental Protection Agency, would address methane emissions from the oil and gas production on both public and private lands. The second, from the Bureau of Land Management, would target oil and gas produced on federal lands. President Obama, as part of his climate action plan, has pledged to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by at least 40 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The upcoming proposals would be a step toward achieving that goal.

Most of the methane pollution quantified by the report is vented into the air or escapes from flares that fail to completely combust the gas. A large amount of the gas also leaks from drilling and production equipment.

The report, which was based primarily on data from federal agencies, shows that nearly 48 billion cubic feet of federal natural gas was lost through leaks and venting in 2013. More than 18 billion cubic feet of tribal natural gas was lost. Most of that gas was methane. Significantly more gas was lost during natural gas production than oil production.

Top five states generating the most methane waste in federal lands, taking into account venting, leaking and flaring of gas.
Environmental Defense Fund
The government forfeited some $31 million it would have been able to collect in royalties from the lost natural gas, according to the analysis. (The report did not calculate the losses in tribal royalties because tribal royalty rates vary greatly.)

“It’s both an environmental and a fiscal issue and it’s important for both reasons,” says Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director for Environmental Defense Fund.

Grossman hopes the study will impress the EPA and BLM to follow through with strong regulations.

“Natural gas can be a net climate benefit, if we demand the most efficient production and development processes as possible,” Grossman added.

Industry representatives stressed that companies already are doing a lot to reduce leaks and venting. Some states, including Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, have set pollution regulations that will reduce methane losses. 

“Companies already are incentivized to reduce these emissions,” said Howard Feldman, senior director of regulation and science for the American Petroleum Institute. “Many companies are taking these approaches. Not all. The vast majority of production is coming from companies already taking these measures.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's Washington, DC Correspondent.  

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