Climate

How EPA Could Cut National Methane Leaks Almost In Half

CREDIT: AP Photo / Jerry McBride, File

Kourtney Hardwick, BP Florida operations manager, looks over a methane gas well site east of Bayfield, Colorado.

Three top environmental groups released a report on Thursday detailing how the federal government could cut the country’s methane emissions almost in half.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas. As the rise of hydraulic fracturing has lead to a boom in natural gas (as well as oil) production in North America, it’s also become apparent that methane has a tendency to leak into the atmosphere at various points in the industry’s infrastructure. That’s a problem, because methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. It traps 36 times more heat than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide overall, and in its first 20 years in the atmosphere it can trap 87 times more.

According to the report — co-written by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Clean Air Task Force — specific new regulations could reduce these emissions by 42 to 48 percent, and thus prevent the release of anywhere from 3.2 to 3.7 million metric tons of methane per year. Over a two-decade time frame, this would be equivalent to preventing more than 320 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year.

“This is the most significant, most cost-effective thing the administration can do to tackle climate change pollution that it hasn’t already committed to do,” David Doniger, the director of NRDC’s climate and air program, said in a statement. “Along with cutting carbon pollution from power plants and vehicles, these practical steps are the one-two punch we need to stave off the worst effects of a disrupted climate.”

The rules recommended by the report would be implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and would be aimed at improving leak detection and repair, cleaning up older equipment, and curbing the industry’s habit of sometimes intentionally releasing the gas for various reasons. Right now many leaks at wellpads, processing plants, and other facilities often go undetected under EPA’s current standards. And many rules for maintaining equipment apply to new setups and sources, but not to existing ones — even though the latter are responsible for the vast majority of the leaks. Meanwhile, current EPA rules preventing “completion emissions” — the burst of gas that can happen right after hydraulic fracturing is complete — apply to natural gas wells but not oil wells, even though the latter often leak methane as well.

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“The measures highlighted in our core analysis are commercially available and in use, though far from universally,” the report explains. “They have been demonstrated in the field to reduce emissions. In addition, the net cost of these measures is very low because they keep gas in the system instead of wasting it. Some of the measures pay for themselves in time because of this reduced waste.”

The Environmental Defense Fund looked at the methane mitigation industry in a report released last month, finding that at least 76 companies, many of them small businesses, employ thousands of people to use and manufacture equipment that helps reduce the accidental or unwanted leakage of methane.

Specifically, the report estimates these new rules would cost the industry one to one and a half percent of its annual revenue. Part of that low cost is because, by capturing methane that would otherwise have leaked, the industry will actually have more product to sell: enough natural gas to heat 6.5 million homes in the United States, according to the analysis. By cutting methane leaks, the new rules would also cut other forms of air pollution from the wells, which would in turn benefit the health of nearby residents and workers and generate its own economic returns.

The report points to two specific statutes under the Clean Air Act that give EPA the authority to enact the rules. The agency would need to target existing sources as well as several categories of new sources. It would also need to target methane emissions directly, rather than relying on targets of other pollutants to also reduce methane leaks as a side effect, as the second route would achieve only about one-tenth of the methane reductions under the first route.

The environmental groups based their analysis and their numbers on EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, which tracks methane, carbon dioxide, and other climate emissions from around the country. The report acknowledges this may make its estimates overly conservative, as independent research strongly suggests the scale of national methane leakage is twice what EPA’s inventory is recording. When those leaks are factored in, natural gas’ potential to provide energy at a lower cost to the climate than coal pretty much goes away entirely.

Thursday’s report is a summary of the environmental groups’ findings. Their full analysis is scheduled to be released later this fall.