US approaches industry dreaded methane crackdown


The free ride for methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is finally coming to an end in Washington.

As one warming pollutant after another has come under the control of regulators, powerful petrochemical interests and, until recently, scientific uncertainty as to the magnitude of the problem, have thwarted the restrictions on methane. That will start to change in the coming weeks when the Biden administration comes up with the most aggressive federal methane mandates to date for oil and gas wells.

“Science tells us that we have very little time left to slow global warming before we start to cross serious climate tipping points,” said Sarah Smith, director of the Clean Air Task Force’s super pollutants program. “The fastest way to pump the brakes is to reduce methane pollution. “

The fight against methane – blamed by scientists for more than a quarter of the global warming occurring today – has gained new urgency as the consequences of climate change become more apparent in drought-fueled forest fires ravaging the western United States; and intense coastal storms flooding cities with record precipitation.

The administration’s next regulations, to be proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, will address leaks from nearly a million oil and gas wells – among the largest sources of gas. The EPA’s proposals would order more rigorous inspections and repairs to equipment in new wells and force companies to plug leaks on hundreds of thousands of wells that were drilled long ago but have so far escaped the restrictions.

The proposals should also prevent drillers from simply venting the methane that accompanies the oil directly into the air or burning it, with flares so concentrated they can be seen from space. This is done in some areas because methane, although it is the main ingredient in natural gas, is often treated as an unwanted by-product when it comes out of oil wells and there is no pipelines to transport it to paying customers.

The move comes after US President Joe Biden unveiled a plan to persuade other countries to cut gas emissions by 30% by the end of the decade.

The delay in action has frustrated environmentalists as existing technology can capture the vast majority of methane from oil and gas sites, making emissions from the fruit industry of little scope in the fight against global warming.

“The leaks are so bad, not just here, but in Russia and many other places, and they are so inexpensive and easy to fix,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. . “The lifespan of methane being much shorter than that of CO2, the damage it causes is in the next two decades – and, conversely, the advantage of not emitting it – will be felt over the years. next two decades. “

Still, some environmentalists fear the administration’s push will ignore methane from agriculture, which is responsible for 36% of emissions from operations in the United States, according to the EPA. More than two dozen green groups have called on the EPA to draft new regulations reducing methane emissions from industrial dairy and hog farms.

Untouchable agriculture

“There is this feeling that agriculture is almost untouchable,” said Tarah Heinzen, legal director of Food and Water Watch. “We are really concerned that the EPA will continue its past practice of giving factory farms a pass from environmental regulations. It’s a very politically powerful industry, and administrations on both sides of the aisle have looked away from agricultural pollution for decades.

For now, the government has mainly focused on federal funding, voluntary programs and research on ways to prevent methane from escaping from manure ponds and livestock, including through special devices, dietary changes and changes in waste management.

When it comes to new methane mandates, the administration’s regulatory focus is squarely on the oil and gas industry.

“The EPA is focusing its efforts on strengthening existing requirements and proposing new requirements to reduce methane pollution from new and existing oil and gas sources nationwide,” the agency said in a press release sent by email.

There is a reason for this. According to recent research, around 80% of methane leaks from oil and gas sites around the world can be captured with existing technology, compared to just 32% of emissions from livestock. And the EPA estimates that the oil industry is responsible for releasing about 8 million tonnes of methane per year, although scientists argue the emissions are likely 60% higher.

Rapid advancements in technology for detecting methane leaks, including through aerial surveillance operations, will make it easier for regulators, environmentalists and industry to document the true extent of the problem and pinpoint the problems. problematic sites.

“The methane detection and mitigation industry has really exploded,” said Matt Watson, vice president of energy for the Environmental Defense Fund. “The emergence of new technologies capable of quickly and inexpensively identifying leaks makes it possible to tackle these emissions very easily. “

While many oil and gas companies have voluntarily adopted methane reduction programs, with some using drones and laser-equipped planes to search for leaks, environmentalists and scientists say faster action is essential. And they’ll be watching closely if the EPA looks for equipment upgrades and frequent leak checks at old wells that only produce a trickle of oil but may be super-emitters of methane, despite warnings from the industry regarding potential costs.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere and absorb heat from the sun for centuries, methane packs its great heat-trapping power for about two decades before dissipating.

That now makes reductions the key to limiting global temperatures over the next few years. According to the United Nations Environment Program, a 40% reduction in global methane emissions by 2030 would reduce temperature increases by 0.3 degrees by 2040.

Science lagging behind

Scientists were barely beginning to understand the scale of the problem ten years ago, when then-President Barack Obama advocated natural gas as an alternative to coal for clean combustion.

That started to change in 2012, when the Environmental Defense Fund and the EPA launched the first of a dozen studies and white papers documenting methane leaks from petroleum equipment. It took years to identify the full extent of the threat.

“We were a little slow to understand how important the methane problem was,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks policy director. Politics lagged behind science, and initially “there wasn’t a lot of science” to pursue, she said.

The EPA decided to tackle the methane leak directly during Obama’s second term. But the agency focused on newly drilled and modified wells – an approach seen as compatible with the political and legal landscape. The Clean Air Act requires two-step regulation, with restrictions on new sources required before limits can be extended to existing sites. And the EPA was already working on a higher climate priority for Obama: a one-of-a-kind rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Energy prices

The Obama administration also faced an avalanche of opposition from oil companies and their allies in Washington, who warned that aggressive mandates would raise energy prices and cancel domestic production. Administration officials have sought to avoid intense fighting by quietly assuring industry officials that they will not budge to regulate existing oil and gas wells under Obama’s watch, according to two people who have requested anonymity to discuss conversations.

It was a crucial decision. When the EPA in 2016 finalized requirements for companies to routinely find and repair leaks between new and modified sites, the agency did not touch already operating wells that are believed to provide the vast majority of methane leaks. oil fields.

Obama administration officials and environmental activists expected Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to win the White House and quickly grab existing wells. This does not happen.

At the time, activists “knew we were put off; we knew we couldn’t get them back to existing sources, ”Doniger said. “But they were progressing little by little. The goal was to move them forward and hopefully get that done at the start of the Clinton administration. “

After the election of Donald Trump, the US government backed down. Newly appointed EPA executives rescinded most of the 2016 terms.

And although Congress restored the Obama-era requirements this year, “it was a critical time that we lost,” Watson said.

Now Biden has the political clout to tackle the problem, having campaigned on pledges to fight climate change. He even singled out methane when he ran for the White House.

“We’re light years away from where we were five years ago,” said Earthworks’ Pagel. “And that makes it much easier for this administration to take a stronger and bolder position.”

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