EPA Gets Started on Curbing Heat-Trapping Methane from Oil and Gas Operations

This post written with Meleah Geertsma and Vignesh Gowrishankar

Today the Environmental Protection Agency took the first step promised under President Obama’s Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions, released last month.  EPA issued a set of white papers examining five big sources of heat-trapping methane and other dangerous air pollutants from the oil and gas sector.  

Strong standards are critical to protecting communities and our overheated planet from oil and gas pollution.  As we’ve written here, methane leakage makes the rapidly expanding oil and gas sector the nation’s second largest industrial source of climate-changing pollution, after power plants.  Curbing oil and gas methane leakage is essential to meet the president’s Climate Action Plan target of reducing U.S. heat-trapping pollution 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.  And the steps that curb methane will also help reduce other toxic and smog-causing pollutants from oil and gas development and other industries.

The white papers bring together and review a huge amount of data on leakage of methane and other pollutants from oil and gas equipment and operations.  They cover five of the largest sources of methane leakage:  equipment leaks, compressors, pneumatic devices, liquids unloading, and fracked oil wells (a 2012 standard covered air emissions from fracked gas wells).  The papers also lay out information on the many cost-effective technologies and practices available for curbing this dangerous pollution.  EPA is seeking public input on the papers – and particularly on any new data – by early June.  The president’s methane strategy promises that EPA will then decide what standards and safeguards are needed, propose them this fall, and complete federal and state steps to adopt them by the end of 2016.

In our view, the white papers confirm the need for strong performance standards directly aimed at methane and other dangerous air pollutants throughout the oil and gas sector, using Clean Air Act authority that covers climate-changing pollution nationwide (Section 111), supplemented where needed by provisions for curbing smog-causing and toxic pollutants (Sections 182 and 112).  Strong air pollution standards will help protect communities struggling with rampant oil and gas development, but more must be done to protect against threats to drinking water and other community impacts urgently need federal, state, and local attention.  And we need stronger policies to move away from fossil fuels to clean energy.

We will review the white papers and submit our comments to EPA in the coming months to ensure that they provide complete and accurate data on the opportunities to curb methane and other air pollutants from the oil and gas sector.  We’ll continue our strong advocacy, with other public health and environmental partners, for EPA to follow through with strong new methane standards.  

Watch for further posts from NRDC’s technical team as we go through the white papers in coming days.