Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the official kickoff of its Methane Challenge Program—a new voluntary effort to achieve methane reductions from the oil and gas sector. The program is a part of President Obama's plan to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 – 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025, through which oil and gas companies can make and track commitments to reduce methane emissions. But how far towards our goal will this voluntary approach get us? Not very, it appears.
Prior to the launch, history showed us that this industry cannot be relied upon to voluntarily police itself. The precursor to the Methane Challenge, EPA's Natural Gas STAR Program, saw only a measly one percent participation rate over the past 20 years and achieved cumulative emissions reductions of just 1.2 trillion cubic feet of methane since the program started in 1993. According to EPA data, the industry emitted nearly that much methane in just the three years from 2011-2013. With such unimpressive results from voluntary efforts, it's clear that legally binding rules are essential to reach the administration's target for reducing methane pollution. That's why we and our partners are calling on EPA to finalize its proposed rules for new sources of methane pollution and swiftly move to regulating the existing sources that are responsible for the vast majority of the problem.
Despite this track record of paltry overall reductions from voluntary programs, the oil and gas industry has long claimed that they are the best way to reduce emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas that can trap up to 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Funny then that, of the 41 "Founding Partners" of the Methane Challenge Program, not a single one is an oil or natural gas production company.
The program was meant to cover the entire oil and natural gas value chain, including production, gathering and boosting, processing, transmission and storage, and distribution. But the vast majority of the current participants—37 out of 41—are natural gas distribution companies (several also operate transmission and storage facilities). There is currently only one participant from the gathering and boosting segment, and none from the gas processing segment.
According to the EPA's most recent Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the oil and gas industry emits nearly 30 percent of total U.S. methane emissions, making it the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the nation. What's more, the segment accounting for the greatest portion of the sector's methane pollution, making up nearly 40 percent of emissions, is the production segment – the same segment that has decided not to participate in the Methane Challenge Program.
The oil and gas industry's claims about the success of voluntary programs have never stood up to scrutiny. One oft-cited fact is that methane emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells have declined significantly in the past several years. What the industry conveniently leaves out is that those reductions are due largely to state and federal regulation.
The lack of participation in the Methane Challenge Program by oil and gas producers represents a new low from an industry bent on avoiding regulation at any cost and confirms once again that voluntary programs cannot achieve the types of greenhouse gas reductions needed to meet U.S. climate goals.
President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently struck a landmark agreement to regulate methane emissions from existing oil and gas facilities. The failure of the oil and gas industry to clean up its own methane mess makes it clearer than ever that the time is now for EPA to put President Obama's words into action.