Making the case for emissions rules with teeth

August 19, 2015

EPA, methane, oil and gas drilling

Source: Environmental Defense Fund

Source: Environmental Defense Fund

On Tuesday, when the Obama administration released the EPA’s proposed methane rules, environmental groups acted quickly to point out the problems.

The stated goals of the administration are to achieve 40-45% reduction in methane emissions and overall emissions reductions of 20-25% by 2025. Yet under the proposed rules those goals will be impossible to achieve. The rules will be voluntary for existing oil & gas infrastructure and mandatory for new and modified facilities.

“We have a serious problem with existing and abandoned wells, and the final rule needs to address them,” said Kate DeAngelis from Friends of the Earth.

“[The] EPA has now run a voluntary program for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry for the past 20 years and frankly 99 percent of industry has failed to step up to the plate to participate,” said Mark Brownstein, vice president for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) climate and energy program. “It is naive to think that all [oil and gas producers] are simply going to sign up to do what’s right absent some prodding from federal and state regulation.”

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force agreed saying, “There is an essential flaw in the notion that a voluntary program which is not going to get [100 percent] participation can really substitute for regulation. You really need to have 100 percent participation in a program like that in order to make it fully effective. Otherwise you are going to miss the superemitters and you can miss a big part of the air emissions.”

What are “superemitters”?

The EDF coordinated a study of superemitters which was conducted by scientists at Colorado State University (CSU) and was coincidentally also published on Tuesday in Environmental Science & Technology. Superemitters are what are known as gathering and processing facilities – e.g. compressor stations, tanks, processing plants, pipeline transfer stations. These facilities are essential but un-monitored links in the gas distribution chain, from transfer and collection of product to delivery into the market, and they number in the tens of thousands across the U.S.

The study, Methane Emissions from United States Natural Gas Gathering and Processing reveals that these facilities emit about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year, about eight times previous EPA estimates. The result is $300 million in wasted product and tons of toxic waste dumped into our air. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the effect of these newly-discovered emissions on the climate over the next 20 years will equal the output of 37 coal-fired power plants.

EDF’s Brownstein said, “The gathering and processing sector, a piece of the supply chain that most people don’t even know exists, may be the biggest single fraction of emissions coming from natural gas.”

Here’s the problem. The EPA does not regularly monitor these facilities for methane emissions and they did not factor leaks from these superemitters into their proposed methane rules. In reaction to the EDF report on the study, the EPA issued a statement saying the agency “will continue to refine its emission estimates to reflect the most robust and up-to-date information available.”

The amount of methane detected in the EDF/CSU study — and not factored into the EPA’s proposed methane rules — is colossal and must be addressed. According to the report, the lost natural gas could heat 3.2 million homes each year. An industry that loses millions in potential income while fouling the environment cannot possibly be running an efficient system.

At many of the gathering facilities the flow of natural gas is regulated with a series of valves operated by pressurized natural gas. Each time the valves open, puffs of methane are emitted. Researchers were surprised by this.

Anthony J. Marchese, lead author of the study and professor of mechanical engineering at CSU said he thought to himself, “Really? That’s what they do?”

“Why would you ever vent it when you can use it to generate electricity?” he asked.

According to Marchese inexpensive technologies already exist that could easily replace the methane-intensive one.

In which case it has always puzzled me that capturing emissions and selling the product is not enough of an incentive to change. However if the EPA is pressured to factor those facilities’ emissions into their estimates, oil & gas operators would in turn feel some pressure to plug the leaks.

“None of this is rocket science,” said Marchese. “Most of it is auto mechanics.”

I’m pretty sure auto mechanics – and even rocket scientists for that matter – are subject to more rules & regulations than the oil & gas industry.

EDF president Fred Krupp said in a statement: “Setting the first national standards for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is an important move, but it can’t be the last. Additional actions by government are needed. The question to ask of any proposal is how far does it take us toward achieving a 45% reduction, and how quickly does it get us there?”

It’s important to remember these are “proposed” rules. True, they are flawed. But this is just the beginning of the process. There will be public hearings and public comments accepted (time frame not yet announced) before the methane rules are finalized.

As a human being whose health has been severely impacted by oil & gas emissions, I welcome the current media attention on methane emissions, and the upcoming dialogue and discussion prompted by the EPA’s proposed methane rules. Any reduction in methane emissions guarantees reduction in VOC emissions – e.g. benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, styrene, H2S, radioactive isotopes – you name it. Any reduction in total toxic emissions that will improve air quality even slightly will have a positive impact on public health.

But is that enough? Of course not.

Last year, after months of public hearings and public meetings the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission passed new air quality regulations on the oil & gas industry, which included the first methane reduction requirements in the U.S. Like the EPA’s proposed methane rules, Colorado’s rules are voluntary for existing oil & gas facilities and mandatory only for new or modified facilities.

Some in the industry grumbled back then that the new AQ regs were too costly. But a year later, quite the opposite has proven true. Companies like Noble, Anadarko, and Encana, who have all signed onto the state’s methane plan, have discovered the win-win in emissions reductions. The economic benefit of emissions capture far outweighs the cost of the mechanics.

Meanwhile Colorado now ranks 3rd in the nation as home to 19 companies that manufacture, sell, and support methane control technologies, including four manufacturing plants located in the state. Turns out emissions reduction is GOOD for the state’s economy.

Even so, many of us felt Colorado’s new air quality regs didn’t go far enough – lacked teeth. Though victorious over the progress we had made, we were dissatisfied with the outcome. Our chief complaint was making the regs voluntary for existing oil & gas facilities. But we didn’t toss up our hands and stop there. With the help of Earthworks’ Citizen Empowerment Project, activists across the U.S. guided Earthworks’ thermographers on FLIR tours of local oil & gas facilities. Earthworks didn’t just expose toxic emissions and air pollution in Colorado’s existing oil & gas facilities, they exposed toxic emissions and air pollution at more than 150 oil & gas facilities in 7 states. Talk about hammering home the point.

As we head into the upcoming dialogue and discussion, we have this indisputable new scientific data from the CSU superemitters study, which has already put the EPA on the defensive. And we are armed with FLIR videos as solid evidence.

I have been in this fight for over a decade. Never before have we been so well-positioned on any issue to make our case with the federal government.

Be that as it may, I’m not making the case for the EPA’s proposed methane rules here. I have outlined how and why they can be modified. I believe we have powerful ammunition and the door is open to achieve stronger regulations.

For me and my family, it’s worth the effort.

Take the Garfield County FLIR tour

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One Comment on “Making the case for emissions rules with teeth”

  1. Bob Arrington Says:

    And they still say, “It just dissipates in the air!” as they did in the Parachute spill when all attention was focused on 20% into the ground and nada on the 80% into the air. This was the “concentrated” stuff.

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