Stopping the Waste: BLM Takes a Step Forward on Methane from Existing Oil and Gas Operations on Public Lands, EPA Should Follow Suit Nationwide

Credit: Photo: WildEarth Guardians


Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed new standards to address waste of natural gas from oil and gas operations on American public lands. As natural gas is made up of methane - a highly potent greenhouse gas - this waste is an important contributor to our nation's climate change problem. While the Environmental Proteciton Agency (EPA) has begun taking steps to control the oil and gas sector's air pollution, the BLM proposal is the first federal effort focused on reining in methane pollution from a wide range of existing oil and gas facilities. It adopts control measures that are already in use in a number of states, showing that tackling methane pollution from existing oil and gas operations can be accomplished using currently available, low-cost technologies. The EPA should further build on this template to address the pressing problem of methane pollution from oil and gas sites nationwide - not just on public lands.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is an extremely potent climate pollutant - many times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. Yet operations on America's public lands waste more than $330 million worth of methane every year by burning it off or letting it escape into the atmosphere. In addition, many toxic chemicals escape along with methane, and numerous scientific studies have now found unsafe levels of air pollution near oil and gas and fracking sites. Containing and capturing methane rather than letting it spew into the air is common sense - it reduces pollution, protects our climate, and prevents needless waste.

In 2012, the EPA issued standards to clean up volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a set of oil and gas operations, standards that reap some methane benefits as well. But these VOC rules - and the EPA's recently proposed methane standards for the oil and gas sector - only address new and modified sources. Moreover, they do not address equipment and processes downstream of gas processing plants, which emit relatively lower amounts of VOCs but are significant methane polluters. With respect to existing sources of methane pollution in the sector, the EPA has only proposed guidelines for states to address VOCs in areas with ozone (or smog) air quality problems and adopted a small set of air toxics requirements, each with some methane co-benefit. But these VOC and air toxics measures again apply to a subset of existing methane polluters, leaving the majority uncontrolled.

The proposed BLM rule applies to all federal lands, and goes beyond these previous EPA efforts to reach existing methane sources in the transmission and storage segment, where methane emissions are high but VOCs lower. This segment accounts for nearly a third of the oil and gas sector's current methane problem. In addition, the BLM proposal addresses methane pollution from liquids unloading, a process that enables continued production at existing wells but that can produce significant amounts of methane pollution. It also requires operators to reduce their flaring of gas and consider timing of well development with availability of pipeline infrastructure.

Even with the BLM's proposed waste rule, however, the current suite of existing and proposed federal regulations leaves the majority of the oil and gas sector's methane problem uncontrolled. Without fully addressing existing oil and gas sites, it will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to reach the Obama administration's goal of reducing U.S. methane emissions 40-45% from 2012 levels by 2025 - a key part of the overall U.S. commitment to tackle climate change.

The proposed BLM standards, while not perfect, stake out a strong stance in the effort to rein in methane pollution from a broad range of oil and gas facilities. NRDC is pushing for improvements in some areas of the proposed standards, but the BLM should be applauded for addressing methane pollution from a wide range of existing sources. We strongly encourage the EPA to step up along with the BLM and move to develop standards quickly that will apply commonsense methane controls to existing oil and gas operations across the country.