The Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program unveiled last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a perfect example of what can go wrong when the agency tries too hard to entice an unwilling industry to engage.
For years, EPA has offered voluntary “pollution prevention” programs to encourage companies to achieve environmental goals faster or cheaper than they might under regulations alone. Done right, voluntary programs stimulate innovation and reward true leaders. But weak efforts accomplish nothing, handing out laurels for token efforts that amount to business as usual – or less.
The ongoing leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility owned by Southern California Gas has driven more than 2,000 families from their homes in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles and prompted Gov. Brown to declare a state of emergency. It’s dumped an estimated 83 thousand metric tons of methane into the atmosphere so far (see our leak counter here), with no clear end in sight.
But what are the next steps from here? What are the wider implications of this continuing disaster; and where else could something like this happen? What do we do to prevent another Aliso, and how will Southern California make up for the environmental damages once the leak stops?
The troubling fact is that Aliso Canyon is just the tip of a very big iceberg, reflecting both the industry’s widespread methane problem, and the potential local risks of over 400 other storage facilities nationwide. It spotlights a longstanding, largely invisible problem, promising to shift political dynamics around solutions. And the penalty phase, when it comes, will hopefully codify important principles that will also have a big effect on industry behavior. Read More
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a big step this week, announcing the nation’s first methane pollution standards for the oil and gas industry. But to understand the impact of these new draft rules, it’s important to look at what they do – and what they don’t – and measure them against the nation’s bold but readily achievable goals set out by the Obama administration earlier this year.
The president’s target of reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent in the next decade is historic – currently there are no national limits on methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. It’s also critical to protecting the climate and public health – methane packs more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe, and is released along with other toxic pollutants.
The scale of the problem is massive, with industry releasing more than 7 million tons of methane each year. It could also be even bigger than we realize. A new study published just this week reported unrecorded methane emissions from thousands of facilities in only one part of the supply chain. It concluded gathering facility emissions were eight times higher than estimated, a staggering figure that if included in EPA’s inventory would increase current estimates of total industry emissions by 20 percent. Read More
A new study published today reveals that facilities that collect and gather natural gas from well sites across the United States emit about one hundred billion cubic feet of natural gas a year, roughly eight times the previous estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the segment. The wasted gas identified in the study is worth about $300 million, and packs the same 20-year climate impact as 37 coal-fired power plants.
Until now, emissions from thousands of gathering facilities – which consolidate gas from multiple wells in an area and feed it into processing plants or pipelines – have been largely uncounted in federal statistics, yet they may be the largest methane source in the oil and gas supply chain. Indeed, the newly identified emissions from gathering facilities would increase total emissions from the natural gas supply chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent if added to the tally.
The study was conducted by scientists at Colorado State University and published today in Environmental Science & Technology.
EPA doesn’t track emissions from gathering facilities separately from production activities, and there have been no estimates and almost no research on them until now. One reason prior emissions estimates are so uncertain is because the number of facilities was completely unknown. Without conducting a full census, the CSU researchers were able to put the figure at between 3,846 and 5,470 facilities – a wide range, but far better than the guesswork than existed previously. Read More
The U.S. oil and gas industry released more than 7.3 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2013, a three percent increase over 2012 – that’s an amount of gas worth nearly $2 billion, and enough to supply about 6 million American homes. The sector is the largest source of industrial methane pollution in the country. And not even the industry disputes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
So what are we going to do about it?
Earlier this year, the Administration took the first and most important step so far, setting a national goal to reduce oil and gas methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent over the next ten years (to achieve this, rules will need to cover both new and existing emitters, but that’s another story). The first round of proposed regulations is due later this summer.
In the meantime, yesterday EPA released the draft framework for its updated voluntary Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program. Well-designed voluntary initiatives like this one have always been a potential complement to concrete rules, helping to define and showcase best practices. We commend the agency on this new effort.
But did EPA hit the mark – will this program achieve real, measurable, verifiable benefits for the environment? Does it fairly recognize and reward those companies that step up to innovate and lead? Let’s take a closer look at the proposal against a list of critical elements necessary for an effective voluntary program. Read More
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is soon expected to propose its new “enhanced” Natural Gas STAR program, providing guidelines for oil and gas companies that want to voluntarily work to reduce their methane emissions. Calls for voluntary measures by industry to address this pollution have increased in recent months, as the EPA is set to release its first-ever methane rules this summer.
While voluntary efforts can be helpful in establishing new technologies or practices, and validating industry’s ability to meet regulatory benchmarks, opt-in programs alone are no substitute for effective regulation that will reduce energy waste and better protect public health. As we’ve said before, current voluntary programs have an extremely low rate of company participation.
In fact, EPA’s current Natural Gas STAR membership includes less than one half of one percent of all oil and gas producers and operators. Therefore, any update to the program should be seen as an adjunct to long-overdue rules that set sensible emission limits for the industry. That’s the only way to set a level playing field for the approximately 10,000 operators that are part of this rapidly expanding oil and gas industry. Read More