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Nationwide Standards are Key to Reducing Emissions from Oil and Gas

January 5, 2015

Recently oil and gas industry lobbyists have been excitedly reporting about how the industry has “substantially reduced methane emissions” through voluntary efforts. For example, Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), has produced an infographictouting reductions in methane emissions from selected oil and gas producing basins since 2011 based on data from EPA’s GHG reporting program (GHGRP). While we know the GHGRP does not account for all emissions (and its reported totals are far lower than estimates of emissions by independent researchers, based on atmospheric measurements), we can still learn a lot from its data.

Reported emissions nationwide decreased in the past few years (2011-2013). In light of industry’s recent claims, this decrease begs the question: Was this due to voluntary efforts? Here are the types of emissions reported to the GHGRP by onshore producers:

  Nationwide Methane Emissions

(metric tons)

Decrease /

Increase

Emissions Source 2011 2013
Associated Gas Venting & Flaring 174,559 84,103 -90,456
Tanks 96,484 76,312 -20,172
Compressors 41,245 27,832 -13,413
Combustion 18,731 13,287 -5,444
Dehydrators 38,288 25,176 -13,112
Flares 6,535 24,469 17,934
Pneumatic Equipment 956,364 1,096,040 139,676
Equipment Leaks 395,626 348,775 -46,851
Well Completions & Workovers 265,285 66,656 -198,629
Well Testing 26,835 11,461 -15,374
Liquids Unloading 293,300 177,410 -115,890
TOTAL ONSHORE PRODUCTION 2,313,254 1,951,521 -361,733

Clearly, by far the largest reduction in emissions is attributable to well completions and workovers. These are the emissions that occur after gas wells are hydraulically fractured. In 2011 they were not regulated, except in a few states. In 2012, EPA issued regulations requiring operators of gas wells to control emissions after fracking gas wells. That is why emissions from that source dropped by 75%! In fact, the 2012 regulations explain most of the drop in reported emissions from allsources.

The nationwide decrease is largely driven by these important (and mandatory) standards that EPA issued in 2012. In their piece describing the reductions since 2011, Energy In Depth says “EPA specifically credited the industry for ‘voluntary reductions,’” backing up the statement with a link to an EPA report. The EPA report, however, is discussing emissions reductions over the whole period since 1990, not since 2011. (See page 3-62 of this PDF.) Much of the small decrease in nationwide emissions over that earlier time period certainly was the result of voluntary actions. There were almost no new regulations for air emissions from oil and gas production over that period, while a few leading firms adopted some of the cleaner technologies that developed over the past two decades.

But the more dramatic decrease in reported emissions since 2011 that the blog celebrates at length? Most of that is due to regulation.

Moreover, while Energy In Depth is correct to note that emissions in some basins are decreasing, it is important to point out that they fail to note that reported emissions for some basins are increasing. Sadly, some of the basins with increasing reported emissions are basins where we know that emissions from oil and gas are pushing ozone (smog) concentrations to unhealthy levels. For example, reported emissions in the Denver-Julesberg and Uinta basins have risen by 50% and 12% respectively from 2011 to 2013.

As mentioned above, there is a wealth of scientific evidence that emissions from the oil and gas industry are higher than estimated by EPA’s data, so it is not clear that the decrease in emissions shown by those estimates is real. But even if emissions are somewhat lower than in past years, the oil and gas industry is still the second-largest industrial source of greenhouse gases, and the leaks and releases of methane are also releasing other pollutants that are making air unhealthy to breathe in several areas with intense oil and gas activity.

As we have documented, these emissions can readily be reduced much further with nationwide standards for methane emissions from new and existing facilities such as wellpads, processing plants, gas gathering and gas transmission compressor stations, and large aboveground natural gas distribution facilities. These standards should be based on the same proven, low-cost technologies that a few companies are already adopting. These emissions reductions are essential to meet our nation’s greenhouse gas commitments and begin to stabilize our climate.

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