Energy Department: U.S. must act now on methane emissions

WASHINGTON — The United States can’t afford to wait until it understands the amount of methane escaping from oil and gas wells, pipelines and infrastructure before plugging those leaks, officials said Monday.

“We know enough to act,” said Judi Greenwald, a deputy director for climate, environment and efficiency at the Energy Department, during a panel discussion Monday. “There are uncertainties about methane emissions — and part of the administration’s strategy is to improve our numbers — but we know enough to take some action, and this problem may be easier to solve than many characterize.”

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are considering a combination of regulations and voluntary programs that would rein in methane, a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas that is the primary component of natural gas. After releasing a series of white papers earlier this year, the EPA is set to decide its next steps this fall.

Read more: EPA looking at new mandates on methane

Under a 2012 EPA rule, companies also have until until Jan. 1, 2015 to begin using so-called “green completion” equipment that can pare volatile organic compounds and methane emissions when natural gas wells are hydraulically fractured. The EPA could seek to expand that requirement to oil wells and could impose new requirements for compressors, pneumatic valves and other equipment.

While the EPA examines the issue, the Environmental Defense Fund and industry are cooperating on 16 studies meant to document the biggest oil and gas sector sources of methane and understand the best ways to combat them.

Regulation shouldn’t wait until all the data is known, suggested California Air Resources Board chairman Mary Nichols, during the discussion at the Center for American Progress.

“When you’ve got as much methane out there as we do, from so many and diverse sources,” it could take too long to do the “detailed analysis” that might normally accompany Clean Air Act regulation, she said. “It’s easier to control it than to fully characterize it.”

Oil and gas industry leaders stress they are working to quell methane emissions voluntarily and have argued any new rules are premature until the United States gets a better handle on the extent of the problem.

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry’s commitment to reducing emissions is demonstrated by new EPA data showing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector have dropped since 2011.

“We don’t think additional regulations are necessary, especially since EPA’s volatile organic compound regulations take effect in January and we’re already seeing methane emissions fall as companies implement those rules,” added API spokesman Carlton Carroll.

A 20-year-old EPA program known as Natural Gas Star encourages industry to take such steps voluntarily.

But Mark Brownstein, chief counsel of the Climate and Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the initiative’s history shows that “not everyone will participate” and regulations are needed to prod action by others.

“Yes, there will be some leaders and we can point to companies that are doing some cutting-edge stuff, but this is an industry with many thousands of players,” he said. “The only way we can be certain we’re going to have everyone playing by the same set of rules and that we’re going to get that 40 or 50 percent reduction we know we can get is when we have a basic regulatory structure that requires everyone to do the common sense stuff. That’s the reason regulation becomes so incredibly important: to set that playing field so it is level and so it is truly capturing all of the opportunities that are out there.”

For the oil and gas industry, plugging some methane leaks can be a moneymaker. Natural gas that is captured can be sold or even put to work as a fuel source in the oilfield.

EDF’s analysis says 40 percent of the methane reduction opportunities will generate a return on the investment — but Brownstein notes “often those returns are not as high as what could be earned by deploying that capital to drill new wells.” So there is an opportunity cost and tradeoff ins pending money to boost methane reductions instead of investing it into new wells.

“Although there is a return for making these reductions, it is not high enough compared to what companies could earn doing something else with their money,” he said, adding that “shows the need for regulation.”

Finding methane sources and capturing the leaking emissions is only part of the problem. Nichols noted that there are barriers to putting captured gas to work.

“The gas distribution companies have resisted allowing methane that is captured from many of these sources from being inserted into their pipelines,” she said. “They raise objections about the quality of the methane and possible contamination. You have to look at that as an issue before you can just assume you’re going to be able to reuse all of the methane that is out there.”