EPA releases rules to curb methane emissions from oil, gas industry

Pittsburgh Tribune Review

By David Conti

August 18, 2015

The Obama administration's latest move to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector angered an industry that called the proposal duplicative and unnecessary and failed to satisfy environmentalists who want tougher rules for oil and gas wells.

The plan released Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce how much methane escapes from hydraulically fractured wells and related transmission infrastructure targets an ongoing debate about whether the industry is doing enough to keep the gas it pulls out of shale from leaking into the air.

The proposed rules, which aim for a 45 percent reduction by 2025, target only newly permitted sources and ignore leaky, older equipment and the steps companies have taken to cut emissions themselves, critics said.

“It cannot be lost on anyone that shale-related methane emissions continue to steeply drop as natural gas production sharply climbs,” said Dave Spigelmyer, president of the North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition. “These positive results are a function of the industry's widespread use of operational best practices and continuous investments aimed at protecting and enhancing our environment, especially air quality.”

Despite an emissions reduction from fracked wells that the American Petroleum Institute pegged at 79 percent since 2005, leaving the job of regulating existing wells to the industry “will come back to haunt us,” said Larry Schweiger, CEO of the environmental group PennFuture.

“That means, to me, Pennsylvania must do its part,” said Schweiger, one of several advocates who urged the state to strengthen its rules on wells and equipment not covered by the EPA proposal.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said it would review the proposal and look at what other gas-producing states are doing.

“We are working to develop a robust approach to limiting methane emissions in Pennsylvania,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley. “DEP has compiled data on methane emissions and has started research into possible methods of identifying sources of methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells, among other sources.”

The EPA, which is fighting in court to defend its so-called Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, said this rule addresses a more potent greenhouse gas in methane and would cut emissions of volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog. It seeks to clarify rules for whether groups of smaller sources of emissions should be considered one larger polluter subject to tougher permits.

The administration is looking to attack climate change without stifling a shale industry that helped wean the country from its dependence on foreign fuels.

“Cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas are key compliance options for our Clean Power Plan, and we are committed to ensuring safe and responsible production that supports a robust clean energy economy,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The agency, which will seek public comment on the rules, estimated they will cost up to nearly $500 million to implement.

For operators of wells and equipment that moves the gas, the rules would require using “optical gas imaging” — cameras that can capture otherwise invisible leaks — and increased inspections. Use of those cameras and other technology are among steps many companies say they began years ago, when EPA started requiring shale drillers to capture more gas when completing wells.

Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., Pennsylvania's largest shale gas producer, said it was reviewing potential impacts of the proposed rules, but boasted an 85 percent reduction in methane emissions since 2011.

It diverted gas that would otherwise be flared while finishing wells into pipelines, it welded and buried lines to reduce leaks and hired extra detection staff.

“All of these efforts were made to help us produce efficiently and effectively while capturing every methane molecule possible,” said Cabot spokesman George Stark. “Not only is it good for the environment, it makes economic sense.”

Several studies have shown older oil and gas equipment not covered in the rules account for a greater proportion of leaks. Pennsylvania is among several states grappling with leaky, dangerous oil and gas wells abandoned by companies over decades.

“The notion you can do this in a voluntary way, over and over again has proven wrong,” Schweiger said. “We need to have standards and enforcement of those standards.”

The industry said new rules won't change what it's doing.

“Natural gas producers will continue reducing methane emissions regardless of this proposal,” said Marty Durbin, CEO of America's Natural Gas Alliance.

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