Pressure is growing on regulators in California and Washington, D.C., to crack down on methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is accelerating the warming of the planet.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, escapes into the atmosphere through leaks in drilling operations and pipeline delivery. Sometimes the gas is vented or intentionally burned as waste by oil companies, particularly in the Bakken fields of North Dakota.
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering new rules to target methane emissions from oil and gas, which account for a quarter of the methane emissions in the United States, according to the agency.
In California, the nation’s second-largest natural gas consumer, Gov. Jerry Brown has just signed a bill requiring the California Air Resources Board to come up with a comprehensive strategy to cut such emissions.
“Although we’ve been taking action in various ways, we actually did not make a big effort to include methane initially in our climate program,” California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said Monday at the Center for American Progress, a Washington research center with ties to the Obama administration.
Nichols said California’s climate plan focused on carbon dioxide, which isn’t as potent a greenhouse gas as methane but remains in the atmosphere far longer.
Wall Street is joining environmental groups in calling for action on methane. A group of investors with more than $300 billion in assets, organized by Trillium Asset Management and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy this month to aggressively tackle methane.
“As investors in the oil and gas industry we are deeply concerned that methane emissions pose a serious threat to climate stability, accelerating the rate of warming in the near term and threatening infrastructure and economic harm that are bad for the country and bad for investors,” they wrote.
Oil and gas industry representatives said they already were taking steps and didn’t see additional regulations as necessary. They cited EPA figures showing that methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems have dropped 12 percent since 2011. Companies said they’d been acting in advance of a federal rule coming in January that requires capturing pollution from fracked natural gas wells.
“We’re proud to see our industry’s efforts demonstrated in EPA data that show emissions are far lower than EPA projected just a few years ago, even as U.S. production has surged,” Howard Feldman, the regulatory and scientific affairs director at the American Petroleum Institute, said in an email.
More needs to be done with the oil and gas industry, “the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the U.S. and, frankly, we believe globally,” said Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for the U.S. energy and climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.
California also passed a bill this year that seeks to force utilities to find and fix methane leaks in the state’s natural gas pipeline and distribution systems.
The worries are about safety as well as climate change. Weak welds in a 54-year-old natural gas pipeline are blamed for a 2010 explosion that destroyed 38 houses and killed eight people in a San Francisco suburb.
Nichols said California would be working to put together programs to curb methane emissions, looking at agriculture – another huge producer – as well as the oil and gas industry. Cows and other domestic livestock produce methane as part of their digestive process, and state efforts to promote dairy digesters, which convert manure into power, have turned out to be uneconomic. Nichols said it was an ongoing challenge to figure out “how to really make these systems affordable.”
“The focus here, of course, is primarily on the oil and gas sector, and they are the largest emitters . . . but we also have a lot of methane being created by agricultural waste in large portions of our state,” she said.
Nichols said there would have to be strong methane rules if natural gas was to be considered better for the environment than other fossil fuels, citing the push to replace diesel and gasoline in vehicles with natural gas.
“For us to get excited about this we need to see that there is a net environmental benefit,” Nichols said.