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The EPA is cracking down on methane leaks from (new) oil and gas wells

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota.
A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  • The Environmental Protection Agency just finalized its first-ever rules to cut down on methane leaks from oil and gas production. The standards will apply to certain new equipment and wells.
  • Methane is a potent contributor to global warming, accounting for 11 percent of US greenhouse gases, and there's been rising concern about these leaks as fracking expands and hundreds of new oil and gas wells get drilled each year.
  • Indeed, the US probably can't meet its climate goals without getting those leaks under control. So, last year, the White House set a goal of cutting methane emissions from oil and gas operations 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.
  • This newest rule is part of that effort — but only a very small part. It mainly requires companies to monitor and plug leaks from new equipment and wells.
  • In March, President Obama announced the EPA would also move to regulate the thousands of existing wells that have already been drilled (and are responsible for the vast majority of methane leaks). The agency is currently asking drillers for more data so that it can begin this much more complicated process.

Obama needs to cut methane for his climate plan to work

Let's start with the big picture: As part of last year's big Paris climate agreement, the Obama administration pledged that US greenhouse-gas emissions will fall 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Right now, we're not on track. As of 2014, US greenhouse-gas emissions were only 6.9 percent below 2005 levels:

(<a href="https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html">EPA</a>)

(EPA)

The stuff that matters most is clearly carbon dioxide, which accounts for 81 percent of US emissions. That's why the Obama administration has largely focused on CO2 so far. Over the last seven years, the EPA has imposed stricter fuel-economy standards on cars and trucks and finalized the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut CO2 from coal- and gas-fired power plants.

But that still leaves out methane, which has come under growing scrutiny from green groups of late.

Over the past decade, thanks to the fracking boom, the United States has been using more and more natural gas instead of coal for electricity. Natural gas only emits about half as much CO2 when burned for energy, so that's a boon for climate efforts. But there's a catch: When the methane in that natural gas leaks out of wells or pipelines and into the atmosphere, it acts as a potent greenhouse gas in its own right. (The EPA assumes methane is 25 times as effective at trapping heat as carbon dioxide. Even newer scientific estimates say 36 times.)

So the fracking boom has led to an overall reduction in CO2 but an overall increase in methane emissions since 2005. We're cleaning up one mess only to create another. One analysis in 2014 by the Clean Air Task Force found the US simply can't meet its climate goals unless the EPA starts curbing methane emissions as well.

So, back in January 2015, the White House announced a new goal of cutting methane from oil and gas operations 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. (Oil and gas infrastructure accounts for about one-third of US methane emissions; much of the rest comes from landfills and agriculture, particularly cattle.) This rule today is a big first step in that plan.

The EPA's new rule aims to limit leaks from new oil and gas operations

Technically, it's quite feasible to plug methane leaks, which often occur in faulty drilling operations or pipelines. Many companies already use infrared cameras to detect leaks and seal them off. And, in theory, they have ample incentive to do so — it's more lucrative to capture that methane and sell it as energy than to let it waft off into the atmosphere.

But environmentalists have long argued that industry is unlikely to fix the entire methane problem on its own. Many companies, they say, are more focused on the higher returns from drilling fresh wells than on sealing up old infrastructure.

The EPA apparently agrees with this view, as they just issued the first-ever permitting standards for methane from new and modified oil and gas sources. Anyone who wants to drill a new well, install new oil and gas equipment, or make major upgrades to existing equipment will have to take steps to:

  • Find and repair leaks
  • Capture natural gas from the completion of hydraulically fractured oil wells
  • Limit emissions from new and modified pneumatic pumps
  • Limit emissions from natural gas transmission compressor stations, including compressors and pneumatic controllers.

The EPA estimates that these fixes should cost drillers $360 million by 2025, though they'll lead to $540 million in health and environmental benefits. The agency also figures that the rules will avoid about 11 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent by 2025 in total — a very modest dent in the climate problem. (For perspective, the United States currently emits about 6.8 billion metric tons a year.)

Importantly, however, these requirements mainly apply to new or modified sources. They don't apply to most of the existing wells around the country, which are responsible for around 90 percent of methane emissions from oil and gas. Regulating those existing sources is the next, harder step, and the EPA is currently asking for data from drillers about emissions and pollution-reduction equipment.

So what was the reaction? About what you'd expect. Environmental groups think this is a good start, though they're urging the EPA to hurry up on rules for existing wells, too.

"EPA's action is important to stem the emissions from new and modified oil and gas infrastructure, as the Energy Information Administration estimates that natural gas production will grow by 13 percent by 2025," said the Clean Air Task Force in a statement. "But, this action is also critically important as a stepping-stone to required emissions reductions from the existing equipment that constitutes the lion’s share of methane pollution from the oil and gas industry."

On the other side, the natural gas industry isn't thrilled with having to face new regulations and permitting rules. Their line is that companies already have incentive to find and plug leaks, so why get the EPA involved? "This rule is simply not the best way to achieve our shared goal of methane emissions reductions," said Marty Durbin, president of America's Natural Gas Alliance when the rules were proposed in 2015. "Natural gas producers will continue reducing methane emissions regardless of this proposal."

As noted, the Obama administration flatly disagrees with that last premise. In January 2015, the White House agreed that the oil and gas industry has already managed to cut methane emissions 16 percent since 1990 through voluntary measures. "Nevertheless," it said, "emissions from the oil and gas sector are projected to rise more than 25 percent by 2025 without additional steps to lower them."

Don't forget methane from cow burps and landfills

A dairy cow standing in a field. Keith Weller/US Department of Agriculture

By the way, oil and gas infrastructure isn't the only source of methane — according to the EPA, the industry was only responsible for about 29 percent of total methane emissions in 2013 (though that may be an undercount).

Another 36 percent of methane emissions came from agriculture. The beef and dairy industry is a major contributor here: when cows belch, they produce methane (known as "enteric fermentation"). Other sources include decomposing cow manure, as well as methane from rice cultivation.

Then another 18 percent came from landfills. When food and other trash decays in a landfill, the organisms that feed on that trash emit methaneinto the atmosphere.

The Obama administration has been working on some steps to cut methane in these areas, too. Back in March 2014, the EPA announced it would come up with standards to reduce methane from all future landfills, and will then solicit public comments on whether to regulate landfills that have already been built.

As for cow burps, the administration is relying on purely voluntary measures for now. In June 2014, the EPA unveiled a "partnership" with the dairy industry to speed up the adoption of methane digesters that turn cow dung into energy. The hope is to reduce methane emissions from the dairy sector 25 percent by 2020.

Further reading: By the way, the Bureau of Land Management is also expected to put out its own standards on both new and existing wells located on federal lands.