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Time to Lead: With the U.S. Taking the Helm of the Arctic Council, It’s Time to Take the Lead on Reducing Methane and Black Carbon

May 8, 2015 Work Area: Power Plants, Super Pollutants

Last week, in Iqaluit, Canada, the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council passed from Canada to the U.S., and Secretary of State John Kerry, the new Chairman of the Council, was on hand to set the stage for the U.S.’s leadership term. At the meeting, Secretary Kerry reaffirmed the US’s recent announcement that climate change will be a key focal point for the U.S.:

 The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth. Temperatures are increasing at more than twice the rate of the global average. And what these rising temperatures mean is that the resilience of our communities and our ecosystems, the ability of future generations to be able to adapt and live and prosper in the Arctic the way people have for thousands of years is tragically but actually in jeopardy.

 And during the U.S. chairmanship, President Obama and I will work every single day with members of this council to help prepare Arctic communities for the impacts of this change.

But this meeting was about more than just speechifying: the ministerial meeting also adopted the Framework on Black Carbon and Methane Emissions and Secretary Kerry announced he would push for the full implementation of the Framework by the next ministerial meeting in 2017. The Framework calls for the compilation of national black carbon and methane emissions inventories, national reporting on domestic mitigation efforts, establishment of an expert steering group and greater international cooperation on mitigation programs. While the Framework is voluntary and non-binding, its adoption is significant and represents substantial progress towards dealing with these potent climate pollutants by the diverse nations of the Council.

Leadership on short-lived climate pollutants, though, starts at home. The President has declared he will take a number of major regulatory steps toward reducing domestic methane emissions. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) are developing regulatory strategies for reducing methane and other air pollution from the onshore oil and gas sector. While we are still waiting for these proposals, due out this summer, we are hopeful that they will require substantial methane emission reductions from this significant industrial sector.

But there is more work still begging for attention. Oil and gas operations in U.S. Arctic waters must be held to rigorous standards. To ensure that, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) at DOI can and must address its woefully outdated air pollution regulations for oil and gas sources. Back in 2011, Congress transferred authority to regulate air emissions from offshore facilities in the Arctic from EPA to BOEM. Unfortunately, four years later, BOEM is still operating under rules that are more than thirty years out of date.

Under BOEM’s rules, offshore oil and gas sources are not even required to obtain an air permit. Instead, a company need only send information to BOEM as part of its exploration plan, which BOEM must approve before drilling operations can begin. BOEM’s review then hinges on an “emission exemption level” allowing sources to bypass any requirement to install air pollution controls if the emissions fall below thresholds that vary by distance from shore (100 tons per year for a source 3 miles from shore; 200 tons per year for a 6-mile source; 300 tons per year for a 9-mile source; etc.). In short, if a source located 9 miles offshore emits 299 tons of particulate matter, it does not need to do anything. Moreover, the only sources BOEM regulates are those directly attached to the seabed. And, if such a source does exceed the applicable threshold, it will need to put on controls only if its modeled emissions exceed “significant impact levels” – as defined by EPA in 1980! Those “significance” levels simply do not represent current air quality standards for particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. BOEM has committed to updating its embarrassing regulations to address the special conditions in the Arctic – and with the U.S. chairing the Arctic Council this should become a major priority.

At a minimum, BOEM should update its rules so that they are consistent with EPA’s regulations, which still apply to many non-Arctic offshore oil and gas operations. BOEM must also assure that any modeling that is performed looks at the most recent state and federal ambient air quality standards. Additionally, under EPA’s rules that apply to all other offshore sources in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, an offshore oil and gas source’s emissions include those emissions from support vessels located at the source, or en route to or from it (within 25 miles of that source). BOEM must conform its air rules to that requirement, given the important role that support vessels play to offshore oil and gas development in the environmentally sensitive regions of the Arctic in which they operate, and concerns about the amount of air pollution they emit. Finally, BOEM should get rid of its unsupported current “emission exemption levels” scheme, and require air modeling for all offshore sources, including the support vessels, in the Arctic, requiring BACT-like controls for those that have a “significant” impact based on significance levels consistent with those promulgated by EPA.

The wasteful practices of venting and flaring natural gas are of significant concern in the Arctic as well. Venting releases vast quantities of methane – and such waste of the resource is squarely within BOEM’s jurisdiction to prevent. Flaring emits black carbon directly into snow and ice covered areas – and controlling and minimizing flares is within BOEM’s new air regulatory authority. BOEM should demand that companies collect the associated gas and direct it to market or to be utilized for on-site power; where that is not possible, developers should re-inject the associated gas into the oil formation. They should not be allowed to vent the gas, and should only be allowed to flare when absolutely necessary (i.e., in emergencies).

Our country has an opportunity to make real change in the Arctic. Our leadership position allows us to press the Council towards reaching an agreement with oil and gas developers to adhere to the best environmental practices through consensus dialogue with all Arctic stakeholders — until nations can promulgate protective regulations.   We also should promote available reductions in harmful emissions of black carbon and methane beyond the oil and gas sector: in a recent study CATF identified a number of steps the Council could take, including advocating member country regulation of shipping emissions, and open burning, and by facilitating adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency improvements.

The U.S. has the opportunity to press Arctic nations to make real progress on mitigating climate change, and other adverse pollution effects in the Arctic. To be effective, the U.S. must lead by example.

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