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Know the West

If the gas industry wants enviro cred, it should embrace methane regulation


Shift more of the nation off coal-powered electricity and onto that supplied by natural gas, and what do you get? A significant reduction in the carbon emissions driving the alarming climatic shifts we already experience in our daily lives. That’s the theory anyway, based on the fact that natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. And if you put aside concerns about drilling’s impacts to air and water quality, it’s an important one, since this electricity switch may account for a significant portion of the overall decrease in U.S. greenhouse gas releases that’s occurred over the last few years.

Trouble is, the climate benefits of natural gas hinge on just how much is leaking from the wells, pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure used to extract and deliver the fuel. But due to the paucity of comprehensive data, the large margins of error in the findings and the wildly disparate conclusions of various researchers, nobody’s quite sure what the percentage is. Methane, natural gas’s primary component, is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, though more short-lived; as Sarah Keller reported for High Country News last summer, as little as 3 percent loss could cancel out the emissions reductions achieved by moving from coal to gas. Recent studies certainly don’t stoke confidence. One based on thousands of actual air samples, published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, concluded that U.S. methane emissions were actually 1.5 times higher than previously thought, and that those for the oil and gas industry in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were 5 times higher, reports The New York Times.

An infrared camera picks up methane and volatile organic compounds leaking from a tank. Image courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Given this, you’d think the industry would be falling all over itself to do away with leaks and thus help ensure its place in the U.S. energy pantheon long into the future, as well as improve its dismal public image. Presenters and attendees at an industry conference I went to last summer certainly beat the hey-enviro-hypocrites-we’re-reducing-greenhouse-gases! drum almost to the point of being annoying. And when President Obama made natural gas a key part of his climate strategy, energy companies and trade groups were more than happy to toot their horn.

You even might think that the industry, which in some cases is becoming more openly environmentally progressive in response to public concerns about hydraulic fracturing, would embrace Colorado’s landmark proposal to rein in fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas operations, announced last fall as part of a larger effort to tighten air quality rules. After all, doing so would make the industry’s recent concern about climate change seem more, um, well, genuine.

So is it? Nope.

Last Monday, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and the Colorado Petroleum Association filed documents with the state’s Air Quality Control Commission arguing that it doesn’t have the authority to regulate methane and that doing so as proposed is inappropriate, unjustified and unfairly singles out the oil and gas industry for its greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the trade groups suggest that the parts of the rules that crack down on emissions of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), which contribute to the formation of lung-damaging, smog-making ozone, should apply only in parts of the state that have been officially designated as zones with significant air quality problems. That essentially means that energy companies would be allowed to pollute more in areas with cleaner air. (The rulemaking hearing will be February 19 to 21 at the Aurora Municipal Center in Aurora, Colo.; other prehearing statements can be found here.)

"COGA supports many aspects of the rule,” spokesman Doug Flanders said diplomatically in a statement, which suggested the proposal would cost $100 million, far more than Colorado’s analysis found. “We are committed to continuing the good work we have accomplished with state regulators to ensure our air stays clean while allowing this critical industry to responsibly develop oil and natural gas — a product each one of us are using right now.”

Sorry guys… you can’t have it both ways. If you want to claim that the fuel is a key part of the solution to climate change, you can’t just expect the public to buy that all companies are going to voluntarily tackle the leak issue. “Responsibly” developing natural gas is going to take tight regulation to ensure that it’s a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy economy rather than a bridge to nowhere.

As Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Deutch, who chaired the Obama administration's panel evaluating the risks of fracking, has observed, the industry’s reluctance to be transparent about the chemicals used in the drilling process has hurt companies more than it’s helped them, exploding into massive public backlash and a nationwide fracktivist movement. After all, if the formulas are safe, why must companies hide their composition, trade secret or not? "The industry, by saying, 'We're going to hold something back,' is paying a cost," Deutch told EnergyWire last week.

Now, it looks like it’s making a similar mistake with methane. I guess that’s another one to file under #missedopportunity.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman.