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EPA moves to cut methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations

Regulations are aimed at new and modified wells

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
May 13, 2016

Photo shows two jack pumps with the moon behind them.
Credit: Shutterstock
EPA’s move seeks to cut methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations.

In a move to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency on May 12 issued its first-ever regulations to reduce methane releases by the oil and natural gas sector.

The new regulations apply to new, modified, and reconstructed oil and gas operations. Similar rules for millions of existing oil and gas drilling and production facilities are on hold as the agency collects additional information.

Under the new rules, operations are expected to capture some 460,000 metric tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 2025, EPA says. The benefits to the climate will be worth $690 million in 2025, the agency claims, and will outweigh the regulations’ costs of $530 million. In addition, the regulations will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, which are precursors to ground-level ozone or smog, and toxic air pollutants, EPA adds.

In addition to natural gas operations, the Obama EPA rules cover hydraulically fractured oil wells that hold large amounts of natural gas—which is mainly methane—along with oil. The regulations require these operations to phase in technologies to capture methane.

The rules call for more frequent inspections for leaks. Inspections must occur quarterly, twice per year, or annually, depending on the type of oil and gas operation and equipment. They allow use of portable inspection devices and optical infrared cameras.

EPA’s move comes as a handful of states are developing their own methane regulations for the oil and gas industry. States can retain their own rules if they are at least as stringent as EPA’s.

The new regulations were slammed by the American Petroleum Institute, an association of gas and oil producers. Calling the rules “unreasonable and overly burdensome,” API’s Kyle Isakower says the industry is already leading the way in reducing methane emissions.

Many scientists, however, disagree.

“Our helicopter surveys have shown that as many as 10% of oil and gas sites leak a lot,” says Robert Jackson, a Stanford University professor and earth scientist. Jackson is among scientists who have studied airborne emissions above oil and gas fields and whose work resulted in a recent EPA reassessment of methane leakage from oil and gas fields.

Earthworks and the Environmental Defense Fund, advocacy groups that have long lobbied for tougher methane regulations, applauded the regulation and urged EPA to quickly regulate emissions from some million existing oil and gas operations in the U.S.



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