EPA proposes reducing methane leaks from oil and gas production

The regulations are part of Obama’s strategy to fight climate change.


The Environmental Protection Agency proposed yesterday to reduce emissions of methane from the oil and gas industry across the country, targeting new wells and equipment but also providing guidelines for existing wells and equipment in areas with poor air quality.

Oilfield pumpjack in west Texas.
Eric Kounce TexasRaiser

Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, and reigning in emissions is a key part of President Barack Obama’s strategy to combat climate change. The Obama administration wants to bolster oil and gas production while cleaning it up too. “This valuable resource must be developed responsibly and safely,” Janet McCabe, an acting assistant EPA administrator, says.

The EPA’s proposal also would reduce toxic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, such as benzene, toluene and xylene, which can degrade regional air quality and cause acute health effects for people who live, work or play near wells and production equipment. Under the proposal, companies would be required to find and repair leaks; capture the gas that flows out during oil well completions, after companies drill and before they connect wells to pipelines; and limit methane leaks from equipment used in compressor stations. 

This rule is separate from the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan that was recently announced, and which proposes regulations for emissions from power plants.

In yesterday's announcement, the EPA also proposed updating the permitting process for oil and gas in tribal lands to limit harmful emissions for this rapidly growing industry.“If you put them together, (industry) reductions could be as high as 20 to 30 percent of national emissions of methane for 2012,” McCabe says.

The oil and gas industry is responsible for about 30 percent of methane emissions nationwide. But its representatives argue that they have been reducing emissions even while expanding production, so the EPA’s costly, bureaucratic proposal is unnecessary.

“The problem with EPA making mandatory what industry is already doing is that it simply adds bureaucratic layers that remove flexibility and innovation, while discouraging the development of the single most significant source of U.S. greenhouse gas reductions,” Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president of Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, says.

The EPA predicts its proposal would cost industry $320 million to $420 million but save more than that in reduced health impacts and other benefits.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who heads the Senate Environment Committee, called the rule “another example of the administration’s punitive expansion of their war on fossil fuels.”

Environmentalists applauded the administration for proposing the rule but said that more needs to be done to clean up existing wells and production equipment. These wells and equipment were grandfathered into the proposal, even though the EPA predicts they still will make up 90 percent of the problem in 2018.  

The question of how much methane leaks from oil and gas production has been the subject of hot debate in recent years. The debate is important because hydraulic fracturing and other drilling advances have encouraged a drilling boom. The combination of low natural gas prices and regulations has incentivized power companies to shift from coal to natural gas. Coal emits a lot more greenhouse gases when used to generate electricity than natural gas. But it’s difficult to measure methane leaks because the oil and gas industry is widely scattered. So scientists still are grappling with how much the climate change gains from shifting from coal to gas are offset by methane leaks.

A new study published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology illuminated one piece of the puzzle. It shows that methane emissions from the facilities that collect natural gas from wells appear to be “substantially higher” than the EPA estimates.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. 

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