Regulating carbon dioxide, by far the most common greenhouse gas, is critical to halt the emissions that cause climate change. But methane is a very close second, and for the first time, the federal government is moving to significantly rein in methane pollution.
The Obama administration released a proposed rule Tuesday to regulate methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas wells across the country. How much? It’s complicated.
In January, the administration announced the goal of cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector between 40 and 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. This proposal would help get the United States to that goal, but would not do it on its own.
Tuesday’s proposed action focuses on new hydraulically fracked oil and gas wells. It would “require methane and VOC [volatile organic compound] reductions from hydraulically fractured oil wells, some of which can contain a large amount of gas along with oil, and would complement the agency’s 2012 standards addressing emissions from this industry,” according to an EPA factsheet. Specifically, it updates the 2012 New Source Performance Standards to set these methane and VOC guidelines for new and modified wells.
EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, Janet McCabe, clarified on a call with reporters that contrary to initial reports, the methane proposal would not seek to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent on its own. That target, she said, would be achieved by a set of other rule updates and initiatives which include Tuesday’s proposed rule. Pressed on how exactly the rest of that target would be met, McCabe did not point to any specific initiative the administration had identified to do that.
The EPA expects the standards to prevent the emission of 340,000 to 400,000 short tons of methane in 2025. This is the same as cutting 7.7 to 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Tuesday’s proposal could represent 20 to 30 percent of the total national methane emissions reductions, and a significant amount of the 40 to 45 percent target, according to McCabe.
It would also extend the requirements farther downstream from the oil and gas extraction sites, meaning that leaks along the transmission infrastructure would be reduced. Operators would be required to find and repair leaks under the proposal.
The action would also supply draft guidelines for cutting VOC emissions in ozone nonattainment areas, mostly places in the Northeast with higher-than-allowed ozone levels. VOCs are mixed in the ground with methane and when they are emitted, they help create ground-level ozone, or smog. Apart from the ozone nonattainment areas in the Northeast, the proposal largely does not apply to existing or abandoned wells, though if transmission lines are repaired to prevent leaks, existing wells could see some emissions reductions.
Methane, which is the primary ingredient in natural gas, is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas on its own. This means that it is 86 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is. It is invisible and odorless (the smell of a gas-fired stove comes from the sulfur compounds added to commercial natural gas to allow for leak detection), and thus very hard to detect leaks. Natural gas wells are the main offenders, but methane leaks also happen when oil wells are not equipped to handle the methane that often comes along with or is dissolved inside oil deposits.
Recent studies have suggested that as much as 10 percent of methane pulled out of the ground is leaked into the atmosphere.
According to the EPA, 29 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from the oil and gas sector. Next is the agriculture sector at 26 percent: livestock emits methane through normal digestive processes. Landfills come in third place with 18 percent of the pie.
The new rule comes days after the EPA announced a proposal to tackle methane emissions from your local dump. On Friday, the administration proposed new updated regulations on landfills to cut methane emissions caused by decaying organic matter in landfills by almost a third.
Environmental groups supported the proposed rule, but also noted the need to address emissions from existing and abandoned wells.
“We applaud the Obama administration for taking an important step toward addressing this significant contributor to climate disruption,” said Friends of the Earth’s Kate DeAngelis in a statement. “We have a serious problem with existing and abandoned wells, and the final rule needs to address them.”
Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund said a 45 percent emissions cut is “not hard” and would not require the industry to “fundamentally rethink how it does business.”
“It’s very clear we are going to need regulation for existing sources in order to achieve the 40 percent to 45 percent reduction,” Brownstein said on a Monday call with reporters.
An EDF study from last year found that in 2018, almost 90 percent of the methane emissions from the oil and gas sector will come from infrastructure built before 2011.
The oil and gas industry opposes new mandatory methane curbs, insisting that voluntary standards suffice. Methane is valuable, and rather than let it float off into the sky, the industry would rather capture it and sell it. Most of it is then used in industrial applications or burned for heat or power. Burning methane emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants, but less so than coal does.
So it is unsurprising a whole industry has cropped up to try to capture methane from fossil fuel infrastructure. This industry is not just focused on leaks: some companies use technology and practices to prevent the need for venting or flaring gas. Environmentalists, unions, and industry can all agree that leaking methane at least wastes potential profit and also pollutes the atmosphere. That said, the participation rate in the EPA’s existing voluntary standards is extremely low.
Methane emissions have dropped from the oil and gas sector since 2005, but the EPA says emissions will rise 25 percent over the next decade without additional action. Tuesday’s proposed rule is the first big step the administration is planning in order to take the required action to cut methane emissions significantly.