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The Last Climate Frontier: Arctic Council Leadership on Methane and Black Carbon Must Start at Home

October 22, 2014 Work Area: Super Pollutants

Warming from climate change in the Arctic is happening twice as fast as at lower latitudes, and the Arctic is now “ground-zero” in the struggle against climate change. Arctic and near-Arctic emissions of short-lived climate forcing pollutants, including methane and black carbon, have a disproportionate impact on increasing Arctic temperatures and melting. Methane and black carbon emissions from oil & gas activities in the Arctic are projected to rise as development increases in the coming years.

As the United States prepares to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, the Obama Administration has announced that climate change will be a central theme of its tenure. In a new report, the Clean Air Task Force identifies specific ways that, under U.S. leadership, the Arctic Council can seize the opportunity to curb emissions of black carbon and methane and help buy the Arctic environment precious time as global measures to check greenhouse gas emissions are developed and implemented. In particular, the recommendations identify concrete steps that the Council could take to begin to address methane and black carbon emissions from oil and gas exploration, production and development including working towards an agreement by developers to adhere to best environmental practices through consensus dialogue with all Arctic stakeholders until nations can promulgate protective regulations.

However, leadership on short-lived climate pollutants needs to start at home. In March, as part of the implementation of the President’s Climate Action Plan the Administration established a plan for reducing methane emissions from a number of different sectors. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) were among the many agencies tasked with developing policies and recommendations for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Now we await a major decision from the EPA as to whether the US will directly regulate methane emissions from oil and gas development, a decision by DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on how to reduce wasted gas on Federal lands, and updates to air pollution regulations that directly affect the Arctic through DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). EPA took one step forward in 2012, issuing standards that limit some emissions from the natural gas industry. The 2012 rules limit emissions that occur in the first few days after a gas well is hydraulically fractured through the use of Reduced Emission Completion (REC) technologies—so called “green completions.” However, the standard covers only newly fracked gas wells (not oil wells). While the standard addresses a few other types of new equipment, it doesn’t deal with any of the existing sources of methane pollution, specifically leaks, older equipment and gas that is intentionally released from wells. These emissions come from wellpads, compressor stations, and the facilities in major cities that receive natural gas. This fall, EPA will decide whether to regulate. CATF has urged the Administration to issue regulations that would cut these methane emissions by fifty percent in five years.

Over at DOI, BLM is also set play a critical role in reducing methane and black carbon emissions.  BLM is tasked with minimizing the waste of energy resources on Federal and Tribal lands, such as the natural gas currently being wasted by flaring, venting, and leaks.  This waste leads to not only methane pollution but also black carbon, CO2 and other pollutants. The Administration’s methane strategy committed to proposing a new “waste” rule to deal with this wasted resource and the pollution that comes from it later this year.  BLM’s new waste rule should prevent waste from all oil and gas sources of methane pollution on Federal lands, from both existing and future oil and gas development, and minimize and sometimes prohibit natural gas flaring

DOI’s BOEM was recently given authority over air pollution permitting in the Alaskan Arctic. This is significant because BOEM operates under a system of air regulations that in many cases is more than thirty years out of date. BOEM has committed to updating its regulations to address the special conditions in the Arctic. To do this BOEM must completely overhaul and strengthen its outdated air regulations to protect air quality in the Arctic and should require at least the application of the best available technologies and practices to limit conventional air pollution and global warming emissions like methane, black carbon and CO2 from the wasteful practice of flaring natural gas. BOEM should look to establish a framework that demands companies get associated gas to market or utilize the gas for on-site power, where that is not possible developers should re-inject associated gas into the oil formation, and they should only be allowed to flare when absolutely necessary (i.e. for emergencies). In addition, BOEM should require the use of ultra low sulfur diesel in stationary engines and ships and particulate filters on all diesel engines.

Positive decisions from these three federal agencies will show the world that the US is serious about addressing methane and black carbon pollution and can set the bar for international progress on short-lived climate pollutants through the Arctic Council.

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