Environmental group urges Texas regulators to tackle methane

A prominent environmental group is urging Texas regulators to address methane emissions from oil and gas companies’ operations and says the federal government should become involved if the state fails to act.

Natural gas emits less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when it burns than other fossil fuels, so it’s touted as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal. But methane, its primary component, is itself a potent greenhouse gas and can leak into the atmosphere at several points between production and final use.

Representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a meeting Thursday with Houston Chronicle editors and reporters that outdated equipment and processes are allowing too much methane into the atmosphere, particularly amid surging production of natural gas from shale formations .

“Texas leads the nation in oil and gas production and has a special responsibility to deal with this leaking methane,” said Jim Marston, vice president for U.S. climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s air pollution. It’s a greenhouse gas. If Texas will not step up and do that, then the federal government ought to do it.”

The Environmental Defense Fund, in contrast to may other environmental advocacy groups, doesn’t oppose natural gas production or the hydraulic fracturing technology that helps produce it. EDF has partnered with the energy industry on several projects.

The organization cites federal data indicating that oil and gas operations emit 7.7 million metric tons of methane per year, or 6.7 million metric tons from just the natural gas supply chain. That’s troublesome, since methane’s impact on warming the atmosphere is many times that of carbon dioxide, the organization says.

Except for some specific state rules regarding natural gas storage tanks in North Texas’ Barnett Shale, neither the state nor the federal government have significant regulations on methane emissions by the oil and gas industry, Marston said.

Among other proposals, his organization wants Texas to enact rules requiring energy companies to monitor their operations for methane leaks and replace equipment that’s prone to leakage

“States are the places that tend to pioneer these solutions,” Marston said, adding that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has the power to take reduce methane emissions without new legislation.

The Environmental Defense Fund played a key role earlier this year in Colorado, where it helped state officials and energy companies negotiate first-in-the-nation rules on methane emissions.

The group may have a tougher time doing that in politically conservative Texas.

“The TCEQ does not have any pending rulemaking on this and does not currently have any planned in the near future,” said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in an e-mail.

The EDF, in partnership with major energy companies and universities, has undertaken an initiative to  find out exactly how and where the preponderance of methane leaks occur. It’s working on studies focusing on 16 different points in the production-to-consumption chain, and is working with the industry to develop new, inexpensive technology for detecting methane leaks.

The group says the energy industry could cut its level of methane emissions 40 percent below its projected 2018 levels for an investment of $2.2 billion — an annual cost of less than one cent per thousands cubic feet of natural gas produced.

And it says the energy sector could save money in the long-term by making that investment.  “We’re not dealing with a waste product,” Marston said. “What they’re leaking is the product they sell.”

Matt Watson, EDF’s national director for state natural gas programs, said regulation is necessary because companies can profit more by continuing to spend their capital on drilling.

“If you can make 2 percent return reducing methane and 10 percent drilling your next well, what’s the decision?” Watson said. “That’s why we need regulation.

He said many large oil and producers already are taking steps the organization proposes, but that hundreds of smaller companies aren’t.

Methane emissions linked to oil and gas operations come from a few big sources. One occurs during the well-completion process, when flow-back water used during the hydraulic fracturing process emerges from a well saturated with methane.  Another is the pneumatic devices used on oil and gas infrastructure that don’t always close properly. And yet another is liquids unloading — the periodic removal of fluids that build up on the wellbore.

Federal regulations dating to 2012 require new energy companies to take steps to prevent methane released with flow-back. But the environmental group says those rules are inadequate since they only apply to new wells that primarily produce gas — even though many oil wells produce significant volumes of gas as well.

TheU.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering steps to help reduce fugitive methane emissions, and may make proposals by the end of the year.