When the gusher of methane pouring out of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field was discovered last October 23, it almost instantly transformed the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch into the site of one of the biggest environmental disasters in recent history. It would ultimately take four months to stop the massive leak. According to a new report released today, it pumped nearly 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere.
Now, a year later, the question: What’s been done to fix the problem, and to prevent future blowouts – either at Aliso Canyon, or the 400 similar facilities in more than 30 states? The answer is, while there’s been some progress, it’s not nearly enough.
While air quality as a whole has been improving across the United States over the past few decades, many areas that are ground zero for the nation’s expanding oil and gas industry have shown an increase in dangerous pollutants. In fact, states with substantial drilling activities saw worsening air quality recently, according to the American Lung Association’s last State of the Air report.
That’s because the oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which mix with NOX and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, also known as smog. Additionally, existing oil and gas sources do not face comprehensive nationwide limits for this type of pollution.
This smog has tangible effects, though. In late September, the Clean Air Task Force released a report detailing that the amount of smog forming emissions from the oil and gas sector could lead to as many as 750,000 asthma attacks. The report, called “Gasping for Breath,” similarly documents that these emissions could lead to more than 500,000 days of school missed and 2,000 asthma-related emergency room visits. Accompanying the report is an interactive map, developed by Earthworks, which displays data about the location of active oil and gas wells, and areas of threats to public health.
The good news is that methane pollution from the oil and gas industry is down slightly, thanks to a combination of stronger safeguards starting to take effect, along with a decline in new drilling projects due to an overall market cooling.
Operators report that methane pollution from onshore oil and gas production is down about 3.8% in 2015 from 2014. However, overall greenhouse gas emissions from all reporting segments in the oil and gas sector are only down 1.6%.
Sensible methane standards are starting to work
Some in industry will undoubtedly point to the new numbers as evidence that new emission rules are unnecessary. In fact, the figures show that sensible safeguards are responsible for much of the progress. Read More »
We’ve all seen TV detectives dust a scene for fingerprints. In a study in the journal Nature, a team of scientists did something similar, using carbon isotopes to identify the “fingerprints” of methane– one of the world’s most powerful climate pollutants in the atmosphere.
The study examined the isotopic signature from two types of methane emissions: biogenic (sources like wetlands, landfills and agriculture) and thermogenic (encompassing geologic seepage, activities associated with the oil and gas supply chain or coal mines).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has committed to regulate existing sources of methane from the oil and gas industry, and it is asking for information from the methane mitigation industry to make sure the rule’s approach and requirements account for recent innovation. The EPA’s announcement comprises the U.S. portion of the North American commitment to cut methane by up to 45% from the continent’s oil and gas industry by 2025. Existing sources in the oil and gas industry make up over 90% of the sector’s emissions, which contribute over 9 million tons of methane pollution annually.
The opportunity is open now to tell the EPA what works in methane mitigation.
Emission standards for existing sources of methane will not only reduce greenhouse gases but could also create new markets and customers for the growing mitigation industry. The regulation will likely start with one or more approved work practices to find and fix methane leaks, describing a technology or group of technologies that must be used in a certain manner. For example, EPA’s New Source Performance Standards for new and modified sources of methane required the use of optical gas imaging cameras or “Method 21” instruments. With far more existing sources of methane than new or modified sources, being part of an approved work practice for existing sources would open up a significant market opportunity. Read More »
Conversations around climate change almost always involve carbon dioxide, with good reason. It’s essential to dramatically reduce this pollutant to drive down the total amount of climate warming our children and grandchildren will experience. But, what we’ve also learned over the last few years is that an effective climate strategy needs to do two things: Reduce cumulative warming and the speed at which this warming is happening.
Next to CO2, methane is the most impactful greenhouse gas. While it breaks down faster in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane packs 84 times more warming power for the first 20 years after it’s emitted.
About one-quarter of the warming we are experiencing today is attributable to human emissions of methane, with the oil and gas industry its largest industrial source. Fortunately, there are cost-effective strategies to reduce methane emissions across the oil and gas industry. There is nothing as quick, easy, or cost-effective at slowing the rate of climate change right now than reducing oil and gas methane pollution. Read More »