How science and policy are joining forces to reduce methane pollution

Ben N. Ratner

Recently, the White House took a crucial stride to tackle methane pollution and natural gas waste. A key aspect of the strategy tasks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with enacting policy to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry. On April 15 EPA formally initiated its process, issuing five white papers focused on the biggest opportunities to cut the industry’s methane emissions. A final decision for action is expected later this year.

The Administration’s strategy to reduce methane emissions is an urgently needed development to slow the rate of climate change in our lifetimes. That’s because methane is an incredibly powerful and climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas. Whether you’re a concerned citizen who wants better protections from pollution, an individual compelled to see the U.S. do more to defend the people and places most vulnerable to global climate change, or an energy watchdog who wants to minimize needless waste—know that solutions are within our grasp.

Let’s look at a key piece of the process that the White House galvanized and that EPA has now started to carry forward. EPA’s white papers provide thorough, technical assessment of oil and gas methane emission sources and mitigation technologies, and they provide the factual basis to support policy action. The process requests feedback from the public and a range of expert stakeholders that will help EPA answer: Is now the time to create a real methane policy for oil and gas? I am optimistic the answer will be a resounding “YES.”

A problem worth addressing

The last six months have brought an improved scientific understanding of methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain. A joint Purdue-Cornell regional study adds to this growing list, reporting some of the highest methane emissions we’ve ever seen from drilling. To understand what all of this could look like one of our experts explains it as the equivalent of losing 54 LNG tankers worth of natural gas to the atmosphere every year through venting, leaks, and flaring. That’s a tremendous amount of methane that if lost to our oceans would be seen as a major tragedy.

So far more than one-third of today’s human-caused global warming comes from highly potent, short-lived climate pollutants that include methane. Plus, methane can escape with compounds that contribute to smog and include carcinogens, which led the American Lung Association to urge the White House to issue policy to protect public health. Any way you slice it, methane emissions are a problem.

We can fix it

Available, proven technologies that can slash emissions are on the shelf waiting to be deployed. EDF released a report last month by the consultancy ICF International that found many proven technologies exist that can cost-effectively help cut onshore methane emissions by 40 percent in five years. At an annual cost of less than a penny per Mcf (thousand cubic feet of produced gas), this is hardly a dent in industry’s pocketbook. The ability to design practical regulations that make good use of such cost-effective measures is a big reason why Colorado, Wyoming, and Ohio have adopted policies in the last year to drive down oil and gas air emissions.

More than voluntary action needed

Now EDF is a strong supporter of industry taking voluntary steps to address challenges, and corporate use of leading practices is a big part of the answer on methane. But voluntary action alone is not enough. Consider this:

First, there are literally thousands of oil and gas producers in the United States (to say nothing of pipeline and processing companies). The only way to ensure higher standards of performance is to level the playing field through policy. Without that, the positive results from the proactive companies will be undermined by the rest of the field. We can do better.

Second, although a large chunk of methane solutions more than pay for themselves, not all those measures will be implemented voluntarily, as companies often bypass such investments for even more profitable ways to deploy capital. And for the additional chunk of methane controls with a positive but small cost to the operator, there remains a strong national interest in implementation, as doing so would result in enhanced U.S. energy security, cleaner air and a safer climate. But that interest would lose out in a policy vacuum because individual company financial incentives don’t fully encompass those key national objectives.

We’re confident the case will prove out

It isn’t easy to get things done in Washington, and the hardest work remains ahead for President Obama’s methane strategy. But, we are off to a strong start, and two things are apparent. One, reducing methane emissions is becoming a big tent issue, and there can be lots of winners if we get it right. Two, this is a tailor made opportunity for putting in place sound policy, developed collaboratively for the country.

This post first appeared on our Energy Exchange blog.