Oil and Gas Industry Among America's Top Climate Polluters, Industry Study Confirms

With the spotlight shining on air and water pollution from the oil and gas industry, new attention is being paid to the leakage of methane, a powerful climate-changing pollutant, from the wells, pipelines and other infrastructure that bring natural gas from the drilling fields to your home.  Kept inside the pipes, methane is valuable product, as it is the main constituent of natural gas.  Leaking out into the atmosphere, methane does at least 25 times the damage to our climate, pound for pound, of carbon dioxide.  

Recent estimates and studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others have shown that methane leakage may be much higher than previously recognized, undermining the advantage that natural gas has over coal and other fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel when looking only at CO2 emissions from direct combustion.  EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory issued in 2011 vaulted the oil and gas industry to second place on the list of America’s climate polluters, behind power plants but ahead of oil refineries and every other industry.

Realizing that natural gas’s reputation as the “cleaner” fossil fuel is at risk, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) yesterday issued a new study claiming that the industry’s methane pollution is much lower than EPA’s previous estimate.  Specifically, the study focuses on two sources of emissions, liquids unloading and refracking of wells.  According to the study, emissions from liquids unloading are much lower than EPA previously estimated because controls for these emissions, known as plunger lifts, are in widespread use.  The study also sets forth that emissions from refracked wells are much lower than EPA’s prior estimate because significantly fewer refrack jobs are occurring than EPA assumed.

Even if you take API/ANGA’s bottom-line numbers at face value, the oil and gas industry remains one of America’s top climate polluters.  According to API and ANGA’s revised numbers, oil and gas would move from the number 2 spot to number 3 with over 110 million tpy of CO2 equivalent in methane, behind refineries and in front of cement production.

And most of this leakage can be prevented or recovered at a profit, as my colleague has explained in summarizing NRDC’s report entitled Leaking Profits, which covers 10 available and cost effective controls for methane throughout oil and gas production operations.

In addition, there are still a lot of issues about the study and the sector’s emissions that API and ANGA need to address:

-          The API/ANGA study includes data showing that EPA may be underestimating the number of newly fracked wells by more than 60%.  API and ANGA claim that any increase in the number of newly fracked wells in future inventories will be offset by a decrease in the rate of emissions per frack job.  But the study provides no support for this assertion. 

-           A recent study by NOAA using actual air samples found that gas operations in a region of Colorado – including completions and well head equipment such as storage tanks, pipelines, compressors, and more – leaked or vented about twice as much gas as previously estimated.

And policymakers should note several additional points on the utility of the API/ANGA study:

-          EPA is aware of the issues with estimating emissions from liquids unloading and refractures, and is working on amending its inventory accordingly.  And as the API/ANGA report recognizes, EPA is collecting more comprehensive data through the mandatory greenhouse gas reporting program, including for the two sources addressed in the API/ANGA study.  So EPA is making significant efforts to improve the inventories.

-          Moreover, EPA accounted for a lower rate of refractures in its recent standards requiring use of green completions on wells to capture gas that would otherwise be vented or flared – so the study’s numbers don’t change the need to curb this harmful pollution or the profitability of doing so.

Better data on emissions is always valuable.  The API and ANGA data confirm that methane leakage makes the oil and gas industry one of America’s top climate polluters.  Since the industry can’t be counted on to curb its own pollution, the public has to depend on EPA and the states to protect our health, our communities and our climate as oil and gas development expands. 


Thanks to my colleague Briana Mordick for her contributions to this blog.