Oil and gas operations located on federal and tribal lands leaked $360 million worth of fuel in 2013, money which would have gone in part to taxpayers and tribes in the form of royalties, according to a new report.
Tuesday’s report was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to track fugitive methane emissions, a term referring to methane released when natural gas is leaked, vented, or flared. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and is 86 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.
The report looked specifically at fugitive methane emissions on federal and tribal lands. It found that, on those lands, more than 65 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas was wasted via leaks and venting in 2013, representing more than 1 million metric tons of methane. That means that in 2013, emissions from wasted natural gas on federal lands was about the same as the emissions from 5.2 million cars.
That’s obviously bad news when it comes to climate change. ThinkProgress has reported extensively on the climate impacts of fugitive methane leaks, and Tuesday’s study was no different. It found that, even though natural gas emits less greenhouse gases than coal or crude oil, enough gas is leaking to negate the bulk of its climate benefits.
But it’s also bad for taxpayers and tribes, which are supposed to get royalty payments via the gas derived from their land.
“Every molecule of methane that’s being leaked or flared is a molecule that’s not having royalty assessed on it,” Jon Goldstein, a senior energy policy manager at EDF, told ThinkProgress. “Those royalties are what you use to return to states and tribes to invest in schools, to invest in roads — things that really help impacted communities.”
According to Goldstein, the government is supposed to receive a royalty rate of 12.5 percent on gas produced on federal lands. Half of that percentage goes to the federal government, and the other half goes to the state. On tribal lands, the royalty rate fluctuates — but all the money from that rate goes back to the tribes.
That money is important, because states and tribes risk exposure to potential health and environmental risks when they agree to house oil and gas operations. The biggest reason states and tribes agree to take on these risks, Goldstein said, is money.
“Those resources are supposed to be managed responsibly for the benefit of taxpayers and for the benefit of tribes,” he said. “That’s a problem if there’s waste.”
Some states are wasting more than others, whether it be through old, leaky infrastructure or excess flaring. According to the report, approximately $100 million of the $360 million worth of fuel wasted in 2013 came from New Mexico. Approximately $76.2 million came from Wyoming, and $76.1 million came from North Dakota.
Not all of that is because those states are the most irresponsible, Goldstein said. States like Wyoming and New Mexico have more gas operations on federal and tribal lands than other states, which means they would likely waste more natural gas either way.
But Goldstein also noted that across states, the correlations between gas produced and gas wasted aren’t perfect. Colorado produces a comparable amount of gas on federal and tribal lands to New Mexico, he said, and yet New Mexico wastes significantly more gas.
With Tuesday’s report, EDF hopes to make a strong case to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is currently considering proposed regulations to minimize fugitive methane emissions on federal and tribal lands. That rule is expected to come out this summer, and EDF is pushing for a suite of requirements for companies that operate on those lands, including regular leak and repair inspections, and capturing emissions from compressors.
With its new findings, the report doubles down on those recommendations.
“It shows the large scale of the problem,” Goldstein said. “It shows that it’s something that needs to be addressed.”