Reducing Methane Emissions

By Ben Husch and Kristy Hartman | Vol . 23, No. 18 | May 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, has more than 20 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
  • Methane emissions from the oil and gas sector have fallen 16 percent since 1990.
  • The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that natural gas production will be 50 percent greater in September 2016 than in 2006.

In June 2013, President Barack Obama unveiled a multi-pronged effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since the announcement, state officials have focused their attention on efforts to address and comply with new regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from the electric utility sector, more commonly known as the Clean Power Plan.

Another key aspect of the president’s announcement involves efforts to reduce fugitive methane emissions that escape into the atmosphere throughout throughout the production, transmission and distribution of natural gas. Methane, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States, contains more than 20 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, although it remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time. Methane emissions accounted for nearly 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, almost 30 percent of which came from the oil and gas sector, as methane is the primary component of natural gas. This represents a slight increase from 2012, but is below 2005 emissions levels.

In addition, U.S. oil and natural gas development has significantly increased over the past decade, with oil production recently reaching a 30-year high; the United States became the world’s largest natural gas producer in 2013. While these increases provide certain enhanced energy security and economic benefits, concerns exist within the administration regarding the potential impact of methane emissions, since forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show continued growth in production.

Federal Action

In January 2015, the president announced the administration’s goal to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The announcement comprised actions from a number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Environmental Protection Agency—EPA will issue a proposed rule in the summer of 2015 concerning oil and natural gas production. The rule will aim to set standards for methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas production sources and natural gas processing and transmission sources, with a final rule expected to follow in 2016. In developing this proposal, EPA notes it expects to engage directly with states about approaches the agency should consider when setting standards. EPA will also develop new guidelines aimed at providing assistance to states with the goal of reducing other pollutants from existing oil and gas systems in areas that do not meet certain health standards. Such actions are expected to help reduce methane emissions.

Department of Interior—The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will publish updated standards this spring affecting the venting, flaring and leaking of natural gas, which is primarily methane, from oil and gas wells on public lands.

Department of Transportation—The department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is scheduled to propose natural gas pipeline safety standards later this year.

Department of Energy—The department will begin partnering with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) to accelerate pipeline repair. While these actions by DOT and DOE are primarily aimed at improving the safety of natural gas distribution, an additional benefit is the reduction of methane emissions.

State Action

Several states have adopted rules to reduce fugitive methane emissions that escape into the atmosphere during the production of natural gas. In February 2014, Colorado became the first to adopt statewide rules regulating methane emissions associated with oil and gas drilling. Other state and federal emissions rules require reductions of volatile organic compounds and other pollutants, but these rules do not directly address methane emissions released into the air. Colorado’s regulations require companies to capture 95 percent of emissions from volatile organic compounds and methane. Colorado also is the first state to require monthly inspections of certain well sites that are known to be significant sources of methane emissions.

Wyoming—which ranks third among states in natural gas production and ninth in oil production— adopted rules in 2013 requiring oil and gas operators to apply leak detection and repair programs in the state’s Upper Green River Basin. Operators now must use infrared cameras and other hydrocarbon detection instruments to survey new production wells in the western region of the state. Ohio’s new statewide rules issued in 2014 made it the third state to directly regulate fugitive methane emissions.

Drilling operators now are responsible for regular inspections to identify and quickly seal leaks. While Colorado and Ohio adopted statewide regulations, Wyoming’s rules currently are limited to new production wells in an area of the state known for its wealth of natural gas.

Other Efforts. The oil and gas industry has also initiated several voluntary actions to address methane emissions that were highlighted in the administration’s announcement earlier this year. This includes EPA’s Natural Gas Star Program, a partnership that encourages oil and natural gas companies to adopt cost-effective technologies and practices that help reduce methane emissions. In addition, many oil and gas companies have voluntarily implemented green completion technologies in the past few years to capture methane and reduce emissions during the drilling process. These efforts followed a 2012 announcement from the EPA, which became effective earlier this year.

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