A One-Two Punch to Curb Powerful Climate Pollutants -- Carbon Dioxide from the Power Sector and Methane from the Oil and Gas Industry

EPA’s groundbreaking carbon pollution standards for the nation’s existing power plants, proposed last June, represent the most significant action our country has ever taken to tackle the pollution that drives climate change. NRDC is preparing detailed comments to submit this fall, aimed at making these standards stick and making them even stronger.

Some of my fellow environmentalists have expressed concern that the new power plant standards will cause a substantial increase in natural gas use.  This, they fear, will increase emissions of another potent heat-trapping pollutant – methane – undermining, and potentially overwhelming, the climate protection progress made by the power plant standards.

We share our allies’ concerns about methane pollution, and that’s why we are working on two fronts to dramatically cut methane pollution at the same time that we cut carbon pollution.  First, in the power plant proceedings, we’re pushing EPA to make the deepest possible cuts in carbon pollution, and encouraging states to meet the standards through maximum reliance on clean energy resources – renewable power and energy efficiency.  Second, we’re pressing President Obama and EPA to set strong standards to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas production and transmission system. 

So what is the carbon dioxide/methane relationship here?  We know that a coal-fired steam generating station releases more than twice the carbon dioxide pollution of a natural gas-fired combined cycle plant.  But natural gas is made of methane, and when leaked into the air from the gas wells and pipelines, methane released today will trap 36 times more heat than carbon dioxide over the next century – and 86 times more heat over the next 20 years.  So the more natural gas leaks before it reaches the power plant, the less its advantage over coal.  And, while the exact amount of methane leakage from the oil and gas sector remains unknown, we do know it is high – it’s our country’s second largest industrial contributor to climate changing pollution (second only to power plants), and it’s growing fast as the natural gas sector expands.

That’s why we need strong standards for both power plants and the natural gas industry.

Let’s look first at the power plant standards.  EPA’s proposed standards are based on four “building blocks” of measures to cut carbon pollution.  Block 1 is to make coal-fired plants emit less by becoming more efficient (improving their “heat rates”), but that yields only a modest reduction.  Blocks 2-4 open the door to much more significant carbon reductions by shifting power generation to resources with lower carbon pollution (like natural gas) or none at all (like renewable energy), and by reducing how much power we need to generate (by increasing the efficiency of electricity use).  Using all four categories of measures, EPA projects that the standards will cut power plants’ carbon emissions 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030.   

What does EPA’s proposal mean for natural gas consumption?  In the short run EPA projects that power companies will use more natural gas to comply with the standards in the early years.  As reliance on efficiency and renewables grows, however, the agency foresees that power companies will use less gas with the standards than without them – by 2030, five percent less gas.

We know we can do even better, and NRDC’s comments on the power plant proposal will show how.  NRDC’s power plant plan, released before EPA’s proposal, shows that a strategy that focuses on renewable energy and energy efficiency can achieve deeper and faster carbon reductions while reducing power companies’ natural gas use, and while saving consumers billions of dollars each year and creating hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs.  Our comments will detail further analysis on how EPA can strengthen the standards.  We know the states can ramp up renewables and efficiency faster than EPA projects.  In that way we can achieve even greater carbon pollution reductions than EPA projects, while relying even less on gas than the agency currently supposes. 

So we all need to focus our efforts on ensuring that EPA sets the strongest possible carbon pollution reduction target for each state, and that each state develops an implementation plan anchored in clean energy sources like wind, solar and efficiency. As NRDC President Frances Beinecke has put it: “[The] carbon pollution standards will create powerful new incentives for states and power companies to comply with the limits by investing in wind, solar and energy efficiency, instead of gas. Compared to today's market structure this actually improves the financial value of these investments relative to natural gas.”

But strong power plant standards alone are not enough.  On the second front, we need to work together to get EPA to set strong methane standards for the oil and gas industry.  Even with tight power sector standards, we know we can’t turn off all fossil fuels tomorrow, and significant amounts of gas will continue to be used in power plants and our homes and businesses in the coming years, while clean energy sources grow.  That makes it critical to stop the high levels of methane leakage that currently prevail in the natural gas production, transmission, and distribution system. 

That's why 16 national environmental organizations wrote President Obama today urging him to direct EPA to set strong standards to curb the oil and gas industry's methane leakage.

We know this methane leakage can be cut by half or more with proven, cheap technology.  EPA got started in 2012 with “green completion” standards that will cut the utterly unnecessary burst of methane and other smog-forming and cancer-causing pollution that escapes during the first two weeks of the life of a fracked gas well.  But EPA’s current standards don’t apply to fracked oil wells that also contain gas – gas that the drillers often just waste by venting or flaring it away.  And those standards don’t stop the leakage of methane and other pollutants as gas is gathered from the drill pad, moved to processing plants, and transmitted through hundreds of miles of pipelines to power plants and cities. 

Some of the leaks are shockingly large.  In North Dakota, for instance, a recent report found that one third of the gas produced from the Bakken oil shale formation was flared—the flames from which are visible from space.  And though many other leaks may be individually small, they add up to millions of tons lost to the air.  Most of this waste escapes detection because there currently is no systematic federal requirement to look for leaks.  Simple technologies and leak-detection procedures can cut this methane waste.  Across much of the industry, these pollution prevention measures pay for themselves by keeping methane inside the pipes, where it can be sold as fuel. 

In his March 2014 Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions, President Obama promised that EPA will make regulatory decisions this fall on how to curb methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, and that it will get the job done by the end of 2016.  EPA needs to move without delay to use the same parts of the Clean Air Act that it is using to curb power plant carbon pollution.  That’s the one-two punch we need. 

When EPA curbs this methane leakage, it will also cut the smog-forming and cancer-causing pollutants that plague too many communities on the fracking front and along the pipelines.  These communities desperately need protections for their water supplies too, but stopping the air pollution is a start.

EPA’s power plant carbon pollution standards are a huge step forward in our country’s battle against climate change.  We must make those standards stick, and make them stronger.  And we must keep up the pressure on EPA and the administration to take the next big step to set oil and gas methane standards.  Let’s rally together and make sure EPA and the states get this right — and persevere against the other climate foes that remain. Together, we can build a better future for our children and grandchildren.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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