Opinion: Voluntary compliance doesn't work with frackers

Pocono Record

By Richard B. Kuprewicz

Jul. 31, 2016

The Environmental Protection Agency runs a program called Natural Gas STAR, which challenges oil and gas companies to make voluntary commitments to reduce methane emissions from their operations.

My company, Accufacts, took a deep dive into this program and found that it does not go nearly far enough to limit methane releases including leaks from the industrial natural gas sector. Although it is an admirable program, voluntary measures, like the STAR program and the EPA’s recently introduced Methane Challenge Program, do not work. Thankfully, in addition to adopting the first nationwide standard for methane pollution from new oil and gas industry sources, the EPA is currently collecting information to develop methane pollution standards for existing sources. Here in Pennsylvania, the Wolf Administration is working on standards of its own.

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It is through the EPA and the Wolf Administration’s actions to safeguard our communities, not voluntary measures, that we will see substantially lower methane emissions and a decrease in greenhouse gas contributions.

The STAR program relies on companies to individually decide to move toward reducing methane pollution. This allows the industry to get away with cutting corners and refusing to pursue methane capture technology, citing economic reasoning. While some companies may sign up for the voluntary program, they are too few and too slow-moving to make any real dent in our methane pollution problem.

Despite the best efforts of the STAR program, the industry is still dominated by “super-emitters,” who leak in excess and emit far more than other industrial sources, with no penalties. In Pennsylvania, 100,000 metric tons of methane was wasted through leaks in 2014. That is enough natural gas to heat nearly 65,000 homes. Not only is this leaking pollution detrimental to Pennsylvania’s air quality, but it is also a lost opportunity for Pennsylvania natural gas companies to capture and sell more of their product.

These emitters know how to fix the problem. The natural gas industry is already well aware of the technology available to them to reduce their methane emissions. Accufacts found no technical applications to reduce methane in EPA’s STAR program that have not already been well known by the oil and gas industry for many years, if not decades. Technology exists to address this issue and it is readily employable, but the natural gas industry needs an extra push to use it.

Another factor limiting the application of voluntary measures is the constantly shifting economics of oil and gas. The uncertain economic climate creates little incentive to take voluntary measures. As prices have a historical tendency to shift from high to low quite suddenly, natural gas companies are not motivated to invest in extra voluntary measures. These companies cannot guarantee what the price of their product will be six months or a year from today, so it logically follows that they would not make extra voluntary investments beyond what they are required to install.

The problem of methane leaks occurs all throughout the natural gas handling process, including pipelines and compressor stations. Transmission pipelines, used to transport gas long distances, operate at high pressures so even the smallest leak could create a large amount of leaked gas. Especially in Pennsylvania, where pipelines are moving vast quantities of product, operators may have little or no economic incentive to independently investigate these leaks or releases on their own. Without EPA’s finalized methane pollution standards, voluntary efforts will continue to be overlooked by major sectors of the oil and gas industry, exacerbating a major methane emissions problem.

The methane standards finalized by EPA and proposed by Governor Wolf take a different approach, which will result in substantive reductions in methane emissions from sectors of the industry that would not otherwise be motivated to take action on this problem. With no incentive for companies to join a voluntary program, the EPA and the Wolf Administration have a responsibility to ensure the prevention or capture of this excess pollution. Methane pollution standards will also tackle the “super-emitters,” who emit far more than other industrial sources. These standards will hold the major sources of methane pollution accountable.

On August 2nd, the Information Collection Request period for the EPA’s methane pollution standards will close, and then the EPA will be able to begin work crafting the actual standards for existing oil and gas facilities. We know the key to solving this problem lies in ensuring these safeguards are as strong as possible when finalized, allowing us to see significant reductions in methane leaks and pollution. This will greatly benefit our safety, health, and air quality, and protect our communities for generations to come.

Richard B. Kuprewicz

Click here to send a letter to Governor Wolf and your representatives.

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