Obama administration seeks reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas facilities on public lands

The U.S. Department of Interior has proposed regulations aimed at limiting the amount of a potent greenhouse gas emitted from oil and natural gas exploration wells.

Announced Jan. 22, the new rule would require energy companies to scale back the amount of flaring from 7,200,000 cubic feet per month per well to 1,800,000 cubic feet per month per well within three years. Well operators would have the choice of capturing gases that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere or reducing production as means of achieving the target. Emergency flaring would not be limited.

“I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” secretary of the interior Sally M. Jewell said in a statement. “We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource.”

Flaring is used by energy producers as a way of eliminating gases released from underground during extraction of fossil fuel resources, particularly oil. The gases are considered by the fossil fuel extractor to be either not economically useful or infeasible to store or transport.

These “waste” gases are mostly methane. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 29 percent of total American methane emissions to the atmosphere comes from fossil fuel extraction infrastructure, including wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and processing facilities. Worldwide, as much as 5.3 trillion cubic feet of methane is released to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel extraction, transportation, storage, and processing systems.

Aside from the methane emissions caused by flaring, about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide are also added to the atmosphere every year as the result of flaring around the world.

Flaring also costs the taxpayer money. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the gases flared to the atmosphere from wells and related infrastructure on U.S. public lands means that about $23 million in royalties otherwise payable to the federal treasury is lost to the government.

Video courtesy U.S. GAO.

Environmental advocacy organizations reacted cautiously to the Obama administration’s initiative.

“These rules are an important start to reducing potent methane pollution—which fuels climate change and threatens public health—from oil and gas companies operating on our nation’s public lands,” Meleah Geertsma, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “However, they fall short of what’s necessary to tackle the full scope of the problem, including leaving significant gas leaks and flaring unaddressed.”

“At a minimum, the administration should require the industry to put all of the available and cost-effective measures in place to curb this rampant air pollution problem,” Geertsma continued. “That’s true not just for public lands—but all oil and gas operations, new and old, nationwide.”

The rules announced by Jewell are not yet final. The proposed rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of Interior, will accept comments for 60 days following publication.

President Barack Obama announced in Jan. 2015 that his administration would seek to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed in August 2015 a regulation that would limit methane emissions from new or modified oil and natural gas extraction facilities.

 

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