For as long as people have been drilling for oil, they have been releasing methane into the atmosphere.
Methane is often found in the same place as oil and, as a chief component of natural gas, is a valuable source of energy in its own right. But when methane sneaks out of oil wells, escapes from pipelines or is vented as a nuisance it is a superpollutant blamed for up to a quarter of the planet’s warming.
That makes methane the center of a protracted policy debate revived by the Trump administration as it weakens regulations on the greenhouse gas — and considers erasing them from the rule books altogether.
“Methane is a critically important greenhouse gas that is more than 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its ability to trap heat,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University. “Now is not the time to relax controls on methane emissions from industry.”
The Trump administration is doing just that.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed eliminating some requirements imposed by the Obama administration that force energy companies to frequently seek and plug methane leaks from new and newly modified wells. The Interior Department followed up Tuesday by finalizing a separate measure easing Obama administration mandates that companies stop venting and flaring natural gas at wells on federal and tribal land.
Environmentalists fear those moves are a precursor to a much bigger shift already telegraphed by the Trump administration: eliminating direct EPA regulation of methane altogether. That change could prevent courts from forcing the agency to impose methane regulations on more than a million existing wells on private land — not just the new wells the EPA has already targeted.
The oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of methane emissions.
“Methane is responsible for a large percentage of the climate disruption and the damage to people and property and landscapes that we’re seeing today,” said Matt Watson, associate vice president of climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Reducing methane emissions is an exceptionally cost effective way to slow climate change.”
Because of methane’s potency, curbing rogue releases of the gas can deliver big, immediate impacts in a global quest to arrest climate change.
“Methane is the low-hanging fruit in the climate equation,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force. “If we’re trying to address climate change, on a dollars-per-ton basis, these are the cheapest tons you can get.”
Energy companies say federal methane rules are costly and unnecessary because they already have an incentive to keep a tight lid on emissions: The gas is a valuable commodity that can be sold.
“America’s oil and natural gas producers understand the importance of fair, commonsense regulations,” said Barry Russell, head of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “But for too long the federal bureaucracy has buried our industry in unnecessary and often duplicative red tape.”
More than 40 oil and gas companies have signed agreements committing to phase out some leak-prone devices and take other steps to keep a lid on methane, as part of an initiative known as the “Environmental Partnership” administered by the American Petroleum Institute. Separately, eight oil and gas giants, including BP Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp., last year pledged to continually reduce methane emissions in a pact with the Environmental Defense Fund and other advocacy groups.
And Exxon Mobil took pains to emphasize its commitment to slashing emissions in a Sept. 4 blog post, arguing that the company’s voluntary efforts won’t change even if federal regulations do.
Oil industry leaders generally prefer the voluntary approach, which allows companies to move on their own timetables to upgrade equipment and inspect sites. By contrast, the federal mandates targeted by the Trump administration compel all companies to swiftly spend money capturing methane emissions — even when those investments won’t quickly pay off. And the federal requirements raise the specter of fines and other penalties if companies don’t comply.
The EPA says its proposed changes would save an estimated $484 million in regulatory costs from 2019 to 2025 — or $75 million annually. And the Interior Department estimates that by relaxing the requirements on federal land, it is sparing companies another $1 billion in compliance costs, while acknowledging an additional 1.78 million metric tons of methane emissions over the next decade.
Industry leaders argue they are making progress even without the federal government’s prodding — just by extracting and selling more natural gas, which releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned to generate electricity.
“Clean natural gas produced through advanced technologies like hydraulic fracturing has helped reduce carbon emissions to 25-year lows,” said Howard Feldman, senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.
Still, companies increasingly are flaring and venting natural gas from oil wells in the Permian Basin, a drilling hotspot that spans Texas and New Mexico, notes energy consulting firm BTU Analytics. The practices are rising as energy companies run out of space on pipelines to send that natural gas to market.
Voluntary programs can only do so much to curb oil industry emissions, environmentalists say.
“It is impossible for the oil and gas industry to sustain the marketing claim that gas is a clean, low-carbon resource when the Trump administration is weakening regulations that assure the public that venting and leaks of pollution will be quickly found and fixed,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Methane leaks provide fodder to activists who already fought coal and who are now battling new natural gas pipelines, export facilities and power plants. They argue that methane leaks from those systems destroy any of the fossil fuel’s cleaner-burning benefits.
“Methane is this industry’s Achilles heel,” Watson said. “To compete in today’s energy landscape you have to be both cheap and clean. If this administration caters to the worst performers, the companies that are trying to do the right thing are going to get dragged down right with them.”