EPA methane proposal makes critical progress, but work remains to quickly finalize protective standards

By Jon Goldstein , Edwin LaMair, and Grace Smith 

This week, EPA is holding public hearings on its recently proposed methane standards for oil and gas operations, which build on the agency’s initial proposal and represent a significant step forward for reducing methane pollution across the country.

Federal standards are crucial for curbing methane emissions — human sources of which drive over one fourth of current global warming — and protecting frontline communities from smog-forming and toxic pollution.

EPA’s proposal builds on the foundation of past rules, state regulations, and the actions of leading operators to deliver cost-effective and protective standards. The agency’s actions also draw on input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, from frontline communities and health groups to solution providers and large and small oil and gas companies, offered during last year’s public comment period.

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The agency’s proposal makes major progress, including by ensuring monitoring occurs at all sites and seizing on advanced and zero-emitting technologies, but can be further strengthened in the final rule to reduce pollution from routine flaring.

Strong and speedy final standards will dramatically reduce methane and air pollution from the oil and gas sector, helping to safeguard the climate and protect communities across the country, especially when complemented by the Inflation Reduction Act’s Methane Emissions Reduction Program, MERP.

Final rules must stop pollution from routine flaring

 Routine flaring, the wasteful burning of gas produced at oil wells, is a major source of methane pollution, and while EPA’s proposal is a step in the right direction, stronger action is needed to end pollution from the practice. Luckily, state rules established in states like Colorado and New Mexico show that strong action to end pollution from routine flaring is possible.

EPA’s proposal seeks to reduce flaring by requiring operators to capture gas by:

  • Routing gas to a sales line.
  • Using gas for an onsite fuel source.
  • Using gas for another useful purpose.
  • Reinjecting gas back into the well.

The proposal would only allow flaring if an engineer certifies that gas capture using all four methods is infeasible due to technical or safety issues. When flaring is permitted, the proposal would require monitors and other mechanisms to prevent unlit flares and malfunctions.

While an improvement on EPA’s initial proposal, which only required operators connected to takeaway capacity to capture otherwise flared gas, to end routine flaring, EPA’s final standards must be strengthened along the lines of Colorado and New Mexico’s requirements to clearly and narrowly define the very limited circumstances that would justify flaring for safety or technical reasons.

Four areas EPA rules demonstrate progress

While work remains to address pollution from routine flaring, EPA’s November 2022 proposal does reflect much progress and improvement. Strong features include:

1. Leak monitoring and preventing improper well abandonment.

EPA’s proposal ensures that all sites are subject to monitoring for emissions, including  high-polluting, lower producing wells. Recognizing that these wells could drive up to 50% of all wellsite emissions nationwide, EPA has proposed requiring instrument-based monitoring at all sites with leak-prone equipment, which will be subject to quarterly surveys.

Regular inspections will also be required at all other sites including those with just a single wellhead, as well as idle and abandoned wells — based on recent studies suggesting these wells can be associated with significant pollution.

EPA’s proposal would also ensure inspections continue until a well is properly plugged and closed, helping prevent irresponsible abandonment of end-of-life wells that has led to the current orphan well epidemic. Alongside EPA’s proposed requirements to ensure these sites are inspected for leaks and that their operators have closure plans and the finances to properly plug them, provisions in MERP further support the agency’s efforts to ensure wells are properly closed and not passed on to burden taxpayers and states.

2. Phasing out pollution from pneumatic devices.

EPA has retained its strong initial proposal to phase out pollution from new and existing pneumatic controllers — devices that collectively make up the second largest source of methane pollution. The agency has proposed creating a zero-emission standard for controllers at all oil and gas facilities.

Zero-emitting technologies are widely available, cost-effective and already required by states like Colorado and New Mexico. Leading oil and gas producers like EQT Corp. are already phasing these polluting devices out as well, showing how common sense and cost-effective EPA’s proposal is.

EPA’s latest proposal also creates mechanisms to accelerate the transition to zero-emitting technologies by increasing requirements for controllers that could malfunction, and it extends the zero-emission requirement to pneumatic pumps. Given pneumatics are one of the industry’s biggest sources of methane emissions, these standards will help reduce a significant amount of pollution.

3. Advanced leak detection technology.

The technologies and methods available to find methane emissions are continuously evolving, and EPA has proposed a forward-looking framework that will allow companies to seize on those advancements and deploy proven technologies and approaches to quickly find leaks.

EPA’s latest proposal substantially expands on its initial framework, which would have allowed screening technologies with a ten kg/hr methane detection threshold to be used six times per year alongside one optical gas imaging ,OGI, survey to help address smaller leaks. Now, EPA’s proposal provides for a matrix of technologies with various detection limits, one to 30 kg/hr, to be used at various frequencies and continuous monitoring technologies to be used so long as EPA criteria are met.

Importantly, the proposed framework only allows approaches that will deliver as least as great of reductions as traditional methods. All advanced technologies must first be rigorously vetted by EPA before being deployed in the field.

If deployed correctly, alongside ground-based inspections and routine site maintenance, these approaches can unlock significant progress and the possibility of more frequent — even continuous — monitoring, which is critical given how intermittent many large emissions events are.

4. Detecting super-emitters.

EPA’s proposal includes a monitoring program that would allow third parties to seek EPA approval to conduct monitoring for super-emission events, defined as those exceeding 100 kg/hr of methane emissions — using similar methods as operators. Super-emitter events can release more pollution in a week than a properly maintained large wellsite would emit over an entire year, typically resulting from serious failures at the site, like unlit flares.

The program would ensure operators are made aware of and can respond to rigorous data to quickly mitigate emissions, improve operations and protect communities and the climate. Operators would be notified when events are detected to take appropriate remedial action.

What’s next?

After this week’s public hearings, EPA has established a deadline on Feb. 13 for written comments on this proposal — the latest in a robust, years-long public engagement process.  It will be important for EPA to move swiftly to finalize protective standards as soon as possible.

Once EPA rules are finalized, states and tribes will be able to start developing implementation plans following EPA guidelines. States and tribes would have 18 months to develop and submit plans to EPA, and final compliance would be required within 36 months of submission. For states and tribes that choose not to develop a plan, EPA will develop and implement a federal plan for them.

EPA’s proposal represents an important step forward that the agency estimates would reduce methane emissions from covered sources by 87% below 2005 levels in 2030 alone. EPA must now move swiftly to issue strong final protections.

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