National methane rule calls for 45% reduction

Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015 4:24 PM
This images shows The Four Corners area, in red, left, as the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions. This map shows emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003 to 2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher.) Satellite data spotted a surprising hot spot of the potent heat-trapping gas methane over part of the American Southwest. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency released the first-ever regulation on methane emissions from the oil-and-gas industry. It calls for as much as a 45 percent reduction in the next 10 years from 2012 levels.

DENVER – Federal regulators Tuesday announced the first-ever national methane regulations aimed at significantly cutting the greenhouse gas.

The expected announcement was met by cheers from the environmental world, while the energy sector suggested it amounts to additional red tape.

The proposal calls for a reduction in methane emissions from the oil-and-gas industry by as much as 45 percent in the next 10 years from 2012 levels. In addition to cutting greenhouse gases, it also would reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency follows Colorado’s lead, when in 2014 the state passed the first methane regulations in the nation. Producers are required to use infrared cameras to detect leaks in production equipment, conduct instrument-based monthly inspections on large sources of emissions and implement expedited timelines for repairing leaks.

“Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA chief Gina McCarthy said in a statement. “Cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas are key compliance options for our Clean Power Plan, and we are committed to ensuring safe and responsible production that supports a robust clean-energy economy.”

Much of the focus is on natural-gas producers. Methane strongly absorbs infrared radiation, much more so than carbon dioxide, which adds to climate change.

The Four Corners has been identified as having the highest concentration of methane in the nation. Researchers are currently investigating the cause, which could be a mix of energy development and natural occurrences.

The proposed standards for new and modified sources are expected to reduce up to 400,000 short tons of methane in 2025, the equivalent of reducing as much as 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. The agency estimates the rule would reduce up to 180,000 tons of ozone-forming VOCs in 2025, along with up to 2,500 tons of air-pollution carcinogens.

The EPA’s proposal is duplicative, costly and will undermine America’s competitiveness, said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council, a trade group representing natural-gas drillers. The industry already has significantly reduced methane through innovation, voluntary efforts by producers, and here in Colorado existing regulations, she added.

Environmental group Earthworks, which staffs an oil-and-gas accountability project in Durango, hailed the proposal.

“Until this proposal, regulators’ approach towards this pollution has been ‘see-no-evil,’ ‘regulate-no-evil,’” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks’ policy director. “Now that we are putting infrared technology into the hands of citizens so they can see how their communities are being polluted, that’s no longer acceptable.”

But Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public relations for the Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil-and-gas industry, said the regulation is a burden for companies helping the nation benefit from a domestic energy supply. Sgamma pointed out that methane emissions have fallen 38 percent since 2005, even as natural-gas production soared by 26 percent.

“Those reductions were the result of industry innovation and voluntary measures,” Sgamma said. “Now, EPA wants to glom onto that success by adding costly red tape. The problem with EPA making mandatory what industry is already doing is that it simply adds bureaucratic layers that remove flexibility and innovation while discouraging the development of the single most significant source of U.S. greenhouse-gas reductions.”