Waste Not: A Blueprint to Cut Dangerous Heat-Trapping Methane Leakage from the Nation's Oil and Gas Industry

This post co-written with Meleah Geertsma.

 A new report co-authored by NRDC shows how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can strike a major blow against climate change by cutting leaks and other losses of methane from the oil and gas industry.  The industry’s emissions of methane, a powerful heat-trapping pollutant, can be cut in half using available, low-cost measures, the report finds.

Waste Not, co-authored by the Clean Air Task Force and Sierra Club, zeroes in on commonsense control measures for the top five sources of this climate-warming pollutant.  It calculates the total methane reductions that EPA can achieve by setting “performance standards” for new and existing sources of methane.  

Methane is the main constituent of natural gas.  When the oil and gas industry leaks methane to the atmosphere, it is both polluting the air and wasting valuable natural gas.  All-in-all, the measures identified in this report could prevent the release of enough gas to heat more than 3 million homes each year.

The oil and gas sector is the country’s largest industrial emitter of methane, which is the second-biggest driver of climate change after carbon dioxide. Curbing dangerous methane pollution is critical to meeting the nation’s climate protection targets.  The Obama Administration’s new agreement with China commits the U.S. to reducing its total climate-changing pollution 26-28 percent by 2025. As the Supreme Court has held, EPA has a duty to curb climate pollution from industrial sources under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, and this includes existing facilities as well as new ones.

Most of the industry’s methane pollution comes from leaks and intentional venting.  It’s not enough to put good controls on new equipment, because the existing infrastructure is responsible for the largest share of total methane emissions. We’ve previously explained how this methane pollution can be identified and curbed with existing, low-cost technology and better maintenance practices.

The new report uses data from EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule to take a more detailed look at how performance standards can cut total emissions from the sector in half.  Common-sense, cost-effective measures include:

  • Finding and fixing leaks throughout the oil and gas infrastructure — at wellpads, compressor stations, processing plants, and “city gates” where local distribution companies take control of natural gas;
  • Replacing outdated, designed-to-leak compressors and pneumatic devices throughout the sector with updated equipment that has little or no leakage; and
  • Stopping methane venting from oil wells at start-up (completion) and during production, and from gas wells when water is periodically removed (known as “liquids unloading”).

The report also shows how these same measures can significantly cut emissions of cancer-causing and smog-forming air pollutants that are released alongside methane. These pollution cuts can provide major public health benefits to front-line communities afflicted by oil and gas pollution.  (Additional standards will be needed in some cases to further control harmful air toxics.)

The report demonstrates that methane can be curbed at low cost, with overall costs-of-control averaging $8 to $18 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent.  Many of the measures are actually money-saving and profitable, paying for themselves in a short time. In total, the benefits to health and our climate from setting methane standards far outweigh the costs to the oil and gas industry. More specifics on the control measures, their abatement potentials, costs, and jobs created can be found here.

The estimates in the report are conservative.  They do not take account of recent peer-reviewed studies showing that actual methane emissions are likely much higher than in EPA’s Inventory. Since actual methane emissions may very well be double the estimates in the Inventory or more, the benefits of our recommended pollution controls are likely much higher — and the costs much lower — than our new report estimates.

The White House Methane Strategy, issued in March 2014, charged EPA with determining this fall how to curb methane from the oil and gas industry. EPA issued a series of white papers in April on the availability and cost of measures to curb the very same methane emission sources we examined. 

What’s new in this report is that we estimated the total pollution reduction that can be achieved by implementing these measures, and we examine what parts of the Clean Air Act will do the most to stop the leakage.

It’s now up to EPA to take action.  This is the biggest, most cost-effective step to curb climate-warming pollution that the Administration has not yet taken.  It’s clear what EPA must choose: the only way to take a serious bite out of the oil and gas industry’s dangerous climate pollution is to issue the methane standards our report recommends, without delay.