Given the widespread press coverage of the release of the University of Texas methane emissions study, we shouldn’t be surprised that Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API) is spinning a false story about its results. In an email to leaders in Congress, Gerard tells them that there's nothing to worry about. Methane pollution from gas production is low and getting lower. Wrong.
What the study really said is that technology to reduce methane pollution in the transition from drilling a well to full scale production can be very effective at reducing methane emissions when it is deployed – emphasis on when. This is one of the important points Gerard misses, as no national accounting exists to show U.S. producers currently use these methods as a matter of widespread industry practice.
Gerard also conveniently did not tell Congress that the low wellhead emissions detected by the study are the result of EPA regulations adopted last year – rules API lobbied hard to weaken. Gerard further did not explain to Congress that these regulations don't apply to all unconventional gas production today. Meaning the UT study is not an example to of “problem solved, we can all go home.”
Despite what API would like you to believe, the real story is that federal regulation is helping to drive production sector emissions down. Not that “industry’s efforts to reduce emissions are working.”
To be fair, we acknowledge that industry has unparalleled technological skill and can tackle big challenges — IF it's a priority. Making it so and ensuring that the priorities are set, kept and evolve to stay current with the state of industry practice is a role for policy. EPA’s regulations clearly need to be extended to all producers operating shale wells before we can say that this problem is solved.
Another key point Gerard misses entirely is telling Congress that the study found several places at the well site sites where methane pollution was higher than anyone thought. These include 63% higher emissions from valves controlling routine operations, 38-69% higher emissions from equipment leaks, and 100 percent higher emissions measured from chemical injection pumps (used at the wellhead to keep pipelines flowing).
Sadly, Gerard's email isn’t the only time we’ve heard the University of Texas study twisted for political gain. Senator David Vitter also noted without irony that the results show that EPA regulations aren’t needed –the exact opposite point of the results.
Basically, API, Senator Vitter, and more, are saying that all future decisions on natural gas should be based on the fact that certain types of wells, in a certain portion of the production sector, in one segment of the natural gas supply chain emit methane at a lower rate than originally estimated. Does that make sense to you?
The study represents a great step forward in understanding the effects of natural gas processes on our environment and climate, but it is not all good news. There is still a huge void in information about the whole process. The data we do have tells us there are additional opportunities for producers to further reduce methane emissions and that we collectively, the oil and gas producers, the environmental community, and the government, need to examine the procedures in place and push for better practices and better rules around them.
The only policy implications that are clear so far are the EPA rules for new natural gas wells going into effect in January 2015 must be extended to cover all oil and hybrid oil-and-gas wells, and new rules must be written to measure and reduce higher emissions reported for valves, leaks, pumps and other equipment.
We know enough to get started plugging the holes in part of the system. Now if only Jack Gerard and API would put a plug in their campaign of misinformation.