The White House’s most recent plans for President Barack Obama’s climate change initiative set the goal of cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sectors by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.
Methane was the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted from human activities in the United States in 2012, accounting for about 9 percent of these emissions, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Only carbon dioxide was more prevalent at 82 percent.
Despite this disparity between carbon dioxide and methane in emissions, methane is more efficient in trapping radiation. The EPA estimates that the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 20 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
The EPA will issue a proposed rule in the summer of 2015, then a final rule in 2016.
But a number of experts feel the plan falls short, in that it only addresses new and revised facilities and does not cover existing sources of methane emissions.
Bruce Baizel, the energy program director for Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said his organization is “disappointed” with the plan. Existing facilities for oil and gas, Baizel said, are responsible for about three quarters of greenhouse-gas emissions in La Plata County.
“It is a good first step, but they need to include the existing facilities,” Baizel said. “They are the biggest sources right now.”
Gwen Lachelt, co-chairwoman of the Oil and Gas Task Force and a La Plata County commissioner, said she would support a rule that would require regular inspections of oil and gas wells and the repair or replacement of their valves.
Lachelt said while most of the oil and gas wells on the Colorado Front Range are well-managed, there are some aging wells with valves that leak methane into the atmosphere, which has an adverse effect on the climate.
“Methane that goes in the pipeline that doesn’t go into the air is money in the bank,” Lachelt said. “That is better for the operators and better for the people who live in the region.”
Lachelt also described methane as a “potent” greenhouse gas. She noted the San Juan Basin contains the “reddest” spot in the U.S., meaning it is the largest source of methane emissions in the country. The hot spot, which was discovered by a 2014 NASA study of satellite data, is located near the Four Corners intersection and covers about 2,500 square miles.
“The more we can ensure oil and gas is well-managed, the better off we will be,” Lachelt said. “If equipment is regularly checked and replaced, it is better for everyone.”
Sen. Michael Bennet concurred with the assessments. He described the president’s goals in a statement as “laudable” but urged that existing pollution sources must be included in the plan to comply with “stringent” methane and air pollution standards.
Bennet also called for the Obama administration to adopt Colorado’s model for curbing methane emissions.
Colorado became the first state to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industries in February 2014, when the state’s Air Quality Control Commission adopted rules that required companies to find and fix methane leaks.
Additionally, companies are required to install technology that captures 95 percent of emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds.
“Through its own strong protections, Colorado has proven that it is cost-effective and achievable to reduce methane pollution from all sources of oil and gas activity, providing cleaner, healthier air for all Coloradans,” Bennet said.
Michael Cipriano is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.