New Study Quantifies Natural Gas Loss from Production on U.S. Public and Tribal Lands

Losses from oil and gas operations worth nearly $330 million in 2013, spotlights cost-effective savings opportunities

June 23, 2015
Anna Geismar, (512) 691-3468,
Kelsey Robinson, (512) 691-3404,

A new economic analysisconducted by ICF International for the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that losses from oil and gas companies operating on federal and tribal lands are squandering an amount of natural gas worth nearly $330 million in 2013 at current market prices.

The problem occurs when gas is either burned off, vented, or leaked from well sites and other oil and gas infrastructure on federal and tribal lands in the U.S. The report comes as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), responsible for managing public land resources, prepares to release new rules for oil and gas operators on venting, flaring, and other waste.

“The oil and gas industry is wasting a valuable public resource and making life difficult for their neighbors in the process by damaging both local air quality and the climate,” said Mark Brownstein, EDF Vice President for Climate and Energy. “Solutions to the problem are simple, straightforward, and cost effective. It’s not hard to do. But it’s not going to happen without new rules.”

Significant Emissions Uncovered

According to the analysis, oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands emitted over 1 million tons of methane in 2013, about 12 percent of the nation’s methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Gas production operations on federal and tribal lands represented approximately 21 percent of national emissions from gas production, even though these lands account for only 14 percent of gas production.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe, and is often accompanied by other local air pollutants. Because methane is the main component of natural gas, it also represents a waste of an energy resource every time it is released from the supply chain unburned.

The ICF analysis found that Western states tended to have higher emissions from oil and gas activity on federal and tribal lands, due to the fact that natural gas production on federal and tribal lands is largely concentrated in Western states. New Mexico and Wyoming reported the highest methane emissions on federal lands, with Utah the largest emitter on tribal lands. High emissions were also seen in Colorado and California. Despite its small amount of public land, Pennsylvania showed methane emissions on par with some Western states, due to its volume of natural gas activity on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Cost Effective Solutions at the Ready

ICF examined a range of proven, cost-effective technologies and best practices that could be applied to the emission sources it found, including frequent leak inspection and repair programs. All told, ICF estimated a potential to reduce emissions to the atmosphere by more than 25 billion cubic feet of whole gas per year, or nearly 40 percent of total emissions, by practicing well-known and highly cost-effective pollution reduction strategies.

BLM is responsible for leasing and regulating 700 million acres of federal and tribal lands, an area roughly four times the size of the state of Texas, which produce 8 percent of U.S. oil supply and 14 percent of U.S. natural gas. Currently, there are almost no federal limits governing private or public lands on the amount of natural gas waste and methane pollution that oil and gas operations can emit. The oil and gas sector is the nation’s largest industrial source of methane pollution, as well as a key source of other air pollutants that have toxic effects and contribute to smog.

“ICF’s analysis underscores just how important it is that BLM proposes strong standards to minimize waste and reduce emissions,” said Tomás Carbonell, Director of Regulatory Policy in EDF’s Climate and Air program. “BLM has a responsibility to taxpayers to reduce the massive natural gas waste from oil and gas development happening on public lands, and this report shows there are commonsense reduction opportunities that exist to help do that.”

Methane emissions have already become a priority for many Western states. In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to directly regulate methane from oil and gas operations, partly prompting the Western Governors Association to pass a resolution in support of oil and gas methane emissions reductions. Wyoming also requires stringent pollution controls in an area of heavy drilling activity. And the North Dakota Industrial Commission recently issued a strong gas capture order that has resulted in significant reductions of flaring in the state.  But these rules don’t apply evenly to all federal and tribal lands in these states, and they don’t apply at all to the other states in the region that ICF found are responsible for releasing large amounts of methane pollution.

ICF’s new analysis is based in part on available information about the location of oil and gas production facilities, as well as emission inventories published by EPA and data on oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands within each state. The analysis builds on a previous ICF analysis that focused on opportunities to reduce national emissions from the onshore U.S. oil and gas industry that can be found here.

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