Groups ask Obama to impose methane emissions limits

Leaders of 16 national environmental organizations have asked US President Barack Obama to impose methane emissions limits on the US oil and gas industry. “The… sector is the largest industrial source of methane, which is a potent climate pollutant more than 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide on a 20-year timeframe,” they said in their Sept. 18 letter to Obama.

Representatives of four oil and gas trade associations immediately dismissed the request as misleading rhetoric. “Their messaging is standard fare that exaggerates the impact from the oil and gas industry, and is just factually wrong,” said Kathleen M. Sgamma, vice-president of government and industry affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver.

The letter, which originated at the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, also was signed by leaders from the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and 11 other groups.

It said that the US Environmental Protection Agency “has clear authority under the Clean Air Act to develop smart and reasonable methane standards for the oil and gas industry that will help protect the health and welfare of all Americans. So, too, does the Department of the Interior, which is still relying on 30-year old policies that allow for uncontrolled waste of natural gas and methane emissions on our nation’s treasured public lands.”

The letter conceded that some oil and gas companies are implementing methane reduction measure already, but added that a recent EPA Inspector General’s Office report “underscores that voluntary measures cannot be relied on to provide our nation’s communities and families with adequate protection from this dangerous air pollution.”

An old argument

Industry representatives dismissed the letter’s thrust. “Anti-fracing activists have tried for years to convince people that fugitive methane emissions cancel out the environmental benefits of natural gas,” Jeff Eshelman, the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s senior vice-president of public affairs said on Sept. 18. “As usual, these groups seem to ignore that not only are methane emissions from gas production low, but also [that] they have dramatically decreased as gas production has soared.”

Eshelman said the US reduction in GHG emissions to a 20-year low can be seen in EPA’s latest GHG Inventory, which found that methane emissions fell 16.9% since 1990, with field production emissions falling more than 40% since 2006. “Further, EPA states that this decrease is ‘due to increased voluntary reductions’ by oil and gas producers,” he told OGJ.

Sgamma also cited the 40% reduction, adding that the US gas industry is the only one that “attempts to capture and use methane for beneficial purposes. Otherwise, methane seeps naturally into the atmosphere, although EPA and [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] do not have a handle on natural methane seepage, or is a waste product from other industries like agriculture, waste management, and mining.”

Oil and gas systems account for only 3.5% of domestic GHG emissions, about 10 times less than power plants, the largest single source, she continued. “Focusing on the oil and gas industry while ignoring others is not only inequitable but counter to US climate change goals,” Sgamma told OGJ.

“Increasing regulatory costs on the one industry that has done more to reduce US GHG emissions could have the consequence of making gas more expensive and hence less available for providing those overall climate change benefits,” she indicated.

Fuel-switching impact

Representatives from organizations representing gas companies working farther downstream also criticized the environmental groups’ letter. Cathy Landry, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America’s Communications Director, said that INGAA believes it is important to look at gas’s impact on all GHGs, not just methane which comprises 9% of the total, compared to carbon which makes up 84%. “Let’s keep in mind that [carbon dioxide] levels are at 20-year lows largely because of fuel-switching to gas,” she suggested.

While it represents a relatively smaller part of the GHG total, however, interstate gas pipelines have reduced methane leaks, and are working to reduce them further, Landry continued.

“The industry is working with the Obama administration and nongovernmental organizations to better measure and to reduce methane emissions,” she told OGJ. “Before proposing regulations, we should learn from this process.”

INGAA supports responsible production and transmission development of gas so it may fuel the US economy for decades to come, she said. Not all of the organizations which signed the letter recognize gas’s benefit, “and some would like to like to see no natural gas used at all,” Landry added.

Jake Rubin, the American Gas Association’s Public Relations Director, said that the White House’s methane reduction strategy recognizes gas utilities’ efforts to continue the declining emissions trend. Local distribution companies and their state regulators have made safety a top priority, he told OGJ.

Accelerated upgrades

“Thirty-eight states have some form of accelerated infrastructure replacement cost recovery program in place,” Rubin said. “Many companies are working with their state regulators to accelerate pipeline system modernization, replacement, and expansion. These efforts to enhance safety also put people to work and reduce methane emissions.”

Several cooperative efforts also are under way, he said. Specifically, Rubin said 13 AGA members are working with EDF, one of the groups whose president signed the Clean Air Task Force’s letter to Obama, to improve measurements of methane emissions from gas utilities’ local distribution systems.

The same day that representatives of some of the environmental organizations held a teleconference for reporters about their letter to Obama, the Gas Technology Institute announced that it would cohost a methane emissions conference Sept. 23-24 with the Houston Advanced Research Center at the Lone Star Corporate College Community Building and Conference Center in The Woodlands, north of Houston.

“Through communication and collaboration, ideas can be shared and implemented, processes can be improved, and this challenge can be met and overcome,” the Des Plains, Ill., organization said on Sept. 18. Roger Hernandez, who helps lead EPA’s Global Methane Initiative, is scheduled to discuss the agency’s voluntary programs to reduce gas emissions. A panel which aims to provide an environmental perspective includes representatives from Air Alliance Houston, EDF, and NRDC.

Other scheduled sessions will address gas and sustainability, gas production and distribution’s health and social aspects, regulatory policies to control leaks. Additional information is available online at gastechnology.org/ch4.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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