The Mystery of Methane Leaks: EPA Tells Industry It Doesn’t Need to Know

A fast way to slow global warming is to chase methane. A potent greenhouse gas, in the short term, it warms the planet as much as 86 times more efficiently than does carbon dioxide, even if it only persists for a couple of decades or less. But methane is hard to chase. It issues from wetlands, animal dung, the thawing permafrost. About some of that, there’s not much we can do.

What we can reduce, however, are methane emissions from oil and gas production, which account for the large majority of the methane humans put in the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency under Obama had wanted to write a rule to contain what’s known as “fugitive” methane. But first, regulators needed to understand the size of the problem. So they asked the producers themselves—approximately 15,000 of them—to measure their leaks and reporting in to the agency.

Last week, however, Trump’s EPA, under the direction of Administrator Scott Pruitt, told those energy producers they could now ignore that request; the agency no longer needs to know. In that one move, the administration canceled out nearly a decade of effort on energy development’s methane problem.

Pruitt has said the reporting rule, an “information collection request,” was expensive and burdensome, echoing complaints from the attorneys general of 11 oil and gas-producing states. He claims the agency will find other ways to address methane emissions from oil and gas operations. But his history as Oklahoma’s attorney general, where he collaborated with energy developers on fighting the EPA’s methane-quantifying efforts, would suggest he has no interest in addressing the problem at all. (This morning Pruitt denied even carbon dioxide was for sure a climate problem.)

Which is unfortunate, not just for the planet, but for the industry itself. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is not just an air pollutant; it’s a potential resource. Detection technology has moved ahead by leaps in the last decade, and while it’s expensive in the short term, the investment pays off. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that energy industry loses $2 billion a year in unburned natural gas, and amount that could meet fuel the needs of 7 million people in the U.S. for a year.

The gains for the climate in fixing those leaks would be immediate, and possibly great. Methane and other short-lived climate pollutants—black carbon, certain hydrofluorocarbons—are responsible for 30 to 40 percent of global warming to date.

“There’s a big opportunity there,” says EDF senior attorney Peter Zalzal. “Some really important low-hanging fruit.” Carbon dioxide emissions still matter, too, but addressing short-lived forces could lower by half the coming temperature rise within the next few decades.

“You can bend the curve in the near term,” says Zalzal, “and ensure longer term climate stability.”

No one knows for sure exactly how much methane leaks from oil and gas drilling operations.  “The oil and gas industry is like a factory with no roof,” says Tom Singer, senior policy adviser with the Western Environmental Law Center. “You’ve got concentrations of wells, pipelines, infrastructure. When you treat all of them as independent sources they’re under reporting thresholds of EPA and state permits.” State inventories, he says, are just “guesstimates.”

Nationally, studies have been conducted and later assailed; estimates have been floated and shot down. A satellite image capture in 2014 revealed a massive methane hot spot in the Four Corners region of the Western U.S., suggesting that methane emissions from traditional methods of natural-gas extraction—not just the controversial practice of hydrofracturing—have been significantly underestimated.

Which is why it makes sense to involve the energy industry in tallying emissions. The Obama administration issued its first draft of the information request in June of 2016, revised it based on public comments, and published a second draft in September. That draft, too, underwent revisions based on comments from industry, which wanted more time to collect information. Drillers also wanted to avoid overlap with the EPA’s already existing Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which collects data from 8,000 facilities, including 534 oil and gas producers. The final rule came out on November 10, 2016.

It was, says Zalzal, the culmination of a long process—many years of collecting data and public input.  “It’s important to emphasize that,” he says. “The actions the EPA takes are grounded in extensive factual and technical record, both in terms of need and the reasonableness of the actions taken.

“To roll them back,” he says, “requires some explanation.”

Gas rig on the Marcellus Shale. Via Penn State Outreach and Online Education, on Flickr. Creative Commons license.



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