The Trump administration’s recent announcement that it would not accept methane regulation as it is currently structured for oil and natural gas operations met a chorus of disapproval from environmental groups.
Environmentalists lamented the administration’s move as a blow to worldwide efforts to slow global warming. The Sierra Club said it would give the oil and gas industry “a free pass for methane pollution.” The Natural Resources Defense Council said it would “roll back commonsense curbs on leakage of methane.” And the Environmental Defense Fund said the administration’s action is “a huge giveaway to the nation’s worst run oil and gas companies.”
The perceived wisdom underlying the criticism has been that oil and gas companies have little or no interest in controlling methane emissions. This assumption is badly flawed.
The fact is that since 1990 methane emissions from oil and gas operations in the United States have fallen 15 percent. Over the same period, the production of natural gas increased more than 50 percent, pumping new life into the nation’s economy, creating thousands of jobs and benefitting consumers. What’s more, in the Appalachia Basin, which covers the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, methane emissions have dropped 70 percent, while natural gas production rose by an astounding 384 percent.
Thanks to industry initiatives and the use of advanced and innovative technologies such as satellite imagery, drones, and robots in monitoring and repairing leaky pipelines and processing facilities, energy companies have reined in methane emissions amid increased oil and gas production. Several major companies, including Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Shell and BP, have set a goal of reducing their methane emissions by a fifth by 2025. And the Environmental Partnership, a group of 65 of the nation’s oil and gas production companies, is committed to capturing as much methane as is possible from production wells, pipelines, compressors and other equipment.
This is on top of the oil and gas industry’s success in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to early 1990’s levels. Methane, however, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and it accounts for about 10 percent of total greenhouse emissions.
Now, the administration is proposing modification of an air pollution regulation covering methane that would reduce duplication with state regulations, provide greater clarity for companies in complying with methane rules, and make it easier for oil and gas operators to gain government approval for use of new emission-control technologies. This change is in EPA’s 2016 New Source Performance Standards that address volatile organic compounds associated with oil and gas production. With the change, by 2023, nearly 90 percent of US oil and gas production will be regulated under the New Source Performance Standard, rising to 98 percent by 2033.
Over the years, some of the largest methane emissions have come from the venting of natural gas into the air following the development of new oil wells. Now, companies are able to turn a profit by capturing the gas and shipping it to market by pipeline. Some of the gas, in the form of liquefied natural gas, is being exported to other countries or transported by pipeline to Canada and Mexico.
Progress in reducing methane emissions has provided a reality check in the debate over how to slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere. Given that climate change is likely to be one of the big political issues in the next few years – and maybe the biggest one – it’s worth understanding who is really responsible for what. Once you do, you can get a sense of the country’s policy options.
Dr. Robert W. Chase is an Emeritus Professor at Marietta College. Reach him at the college 423 Fifth Street
Marietta, Ohio, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.