Watchdogs say voluntary methane cuts aren’t enough

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‘To fight global warming, we need real methane rules …’

Staff Report

FRISCO — A slew of recent studies showing how heat-trapping methane emissions have been consistently underestimated apparently didn’t have a big impact on the EPA, which has proposed a voluntary program to try and cut atmospheric methane buildup, with some mandatory regulations still in the works.

The Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program (“Methane Challenge”) (PDF) (18 pp, 512K, About PDF) would provide a new mechanism enabling oil and gas companies cto track ambitious commitments to reduce methane emissions. According to the EPA, the program is based on extensive stakeholder outreach and reflects a revision of EPA’s previously proposed Gas STAR Gold framework.

Environmental groups quickly criticized the voluntary effort, saying it won’t do much to cut emissions of the dangerously potent greenhouse pollutant. A similar existing program has only been joined by about 1 percent of U.S. oil and gas producers, and there’s not much reason to believe the new effort will be any more successful.

“Coddling the oil and gas industry with another voluntary program won’t curb the massive methane emissions cooking our climate,” said Vera Pardee, with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Obama administration must regulate this dangerous pollutant while we move to a clean-energy future. To fight global warming, we need real methane rules,” Pardee said.

In 2013 the existing program prevented methane emissions equivalent to just 24 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — a fraction of the 182 trillion tons of CO2 equivalent emitted by oil and gas operations that year.

What’s troubling is that cutting methane emissions isn’t that hard. Simple mechanical upgrades like fixing leaks, controlling emissions from compressors and other equipment; and stopping the venting of methane from wells would go a long way toward reducing methane emissions. The fact that the oil and gas industry hasn’t taken those steps is a clear sign that fossil fuel companies prefer business as usual.

Just a year ago, a group of prominent scientists made a strong appeal to the Obama administration to cut methane, citing the climate risks of allowing emissions to continue unchecked. Other research has warmed of a methane-induced climate tipping point, at which time long-term reductions of CO2 emissions could become immaterial. Total U.S. methane emissions may be close to double the official estimates.

The EPA will likely propose methane standards for new and modified oil and gas facilities later this summer, but today’s announcement shows that the EPA may be willing to the oil and gas industry afree pass for its massive methane emissions from existing facilities.

The oil and gas sector produces nearly 30 percent of U.S. methane emissions, making it the nation’s largest source of the pollutant. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas — 87 times more effective than CO2 at warming the planet over a 20-year period.

Pardee said the EPA has long ignored the information it has in hand, instead focusing on further data collection and monitoring. In fact, the proposed monitoring for the Methane Challenge program will largely consist of existing requirements under the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.

“The oil and gas industry has a dismal track record of shrugging off voluntary methane-reduction efforts,” Pardee said. “The best way to prevent methane pollution is to keep dirty oil and gas in the ground by banning fracking and curtailing drilling. But we need ambitious federal methane rules to buy time to ward off catastrophic climate change.”

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