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Obama methane rule is ‘first step’ but downplays problem, say green groups

Analysis: New study shows quarter of US natural gas inventory is leaked in distribution process; concerns over old wells

The Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed regulations Tuesday targeting oil and gas industry methane emissions. The EPA says the new rules, billed as part of the White House’s climate action plan, would cut the release of methane, a volatile greenhouse gas, by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels over the next decade.

The plan, first outlined early this year, would require the booming United States natural gas industry to manage intentional venting and leaks to help the United States meet its pledge to the United Nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

In January, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are currently projected to rise by more than a quarter in that time frame.

Until now, all programs aimed at managing leaks have been voluntary.

Methane, the main component in natural gas, is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat. Thirty percent of U.S. methane pollution comes from the oil and gas industry, according to the EPA.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, said methane emissions from natural gas production have dropped 11 percent since 2005.

Environmental groups offered some criticism of the EPA proposal for falling short of what’s needed in the face of an expanding gas sector and a rapidly warming global climate.

The Sierra Club welcomed the move as a “first step” in a tweet, saying more needs to be done. Likewise, Friends of the Earth commended the new target as an important step but aired concern that the proposed rules address only new sources of methane. “We have a serious problem with existing and abandoned wells, and the final rule needs to address them,” said the group’s energy campaigner Kate DeAngelis.

Meanwhile, not counted in the EPA estimates are gathering facilities, a little-monitored but essential part of the gas distribution chain, which collect the production of many wells and deliver it to homes and power plants. According to a report released today by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit advocacy group, gathering facilities lose about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas every year — an amount approximately eight times the EPA’s estimates.

This lost amount is 25 percent of the entire U.S. natural gas inventory, according to the EDF. With that volume of gas factored in, the new administration rules fall far short of their projected methane reductions, not to mention the U.N. climate goals.

Because of the potency of methane, the effect these newly uncovered emissions will have on the climate over the next 20 years is roughly equivalent to the output of 37 coal-fired power plants, according to the EDF.

“The gathering and processing sector, a piece of the supply chain that most people don’t even know exists, may be the biggest single fraction of emissions coming from natural gas,” Mark Brownstein, the EDF’s methane expert, told The New York Times.

Many of the gathering facilities regulate the flow of natural gas with a series of valves that are operated by pressurized natural gas. Every time the valves open, they emit puffs of methane into the atmosphere. It’s a process that surprised Anthony J. Marchese, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University and the lead author of the EDF study, according to the Times. He said he thought, “Really? That’s what they do?”

There are inexpensive technologies that could easily replace the methane-intensive one, according to Marchese, but the industry has had little incentive to change. If the facility leaks were part of the EPA estimates, it could give the gas distributors a push. “None of this is rocket science,” he told the Times. “Most of it is auto mechanics.”

The EPA has not regularly monitored this methane emission source and did not factor these leaks into today’s proposed rules. In a statement in reaction to the EDF report, the agency said it “will continue to refine its emission estimates to reflect the most robust and up-to-date information available.”

Representatives from the environmental community, led by the EDF, contributed to the EPA’s drafting process. Also weighing in were representatives from prominent oil and gas producers and staffers from the office of Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, where a pilot methane-reduction program was started last year.

The amount of methane not factored into the new EPA rules — the amount unearthed in the EDF study — is dramatic. According to the report, the lost natural gas could heat 3.2 million homes each year. Losing that potential income while harming the environment has led to questions over the efficiency of the current system.

“Why would you ever vent it,” Marchese told the Times, “when you can use it to generate electricity?”

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