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Greenhouse Gases

Methane regulation rollback proposed by US EPA

Weakened controls benefit oil and natural gas operations

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
August 31, 2019

Photo of hydraulic fracturing operation.
Credit: Shutterstock

The US Environmental Protection Agency has begun the formal process to roll back regulations to limit emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The proposal would remove requirements for methane emission reductions for oil and natural gas drilling, processing, and transportation operations at new well sites.

The EPA estimates that its proposed amendments would save the oil and natural gas industry $17 million to $19 million annually, for a total of $97 million to $123 million from 2019 through 2025. However, the EPA estimates the proposal will also result in more methane emissions equivalent to 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the same period.

The tighter regulations were enacted in 2016 under former president Barack Obama. At the time, the EPA estimated they would result in $690 million in climate benefits. Subtracting compliance costs, the estimated net benefit was $170 million by 2025.

The proposed rollback strikes all requirements for methane emission reduction or controls, such as frequent inspections and leak detection, for oil or gas production or processing. It includes hydraulically fractured wells that hold large amounts of natural gas, which is mainly methane, along with oil.

The 2016 regulation also reduced emissions of toxic air pollutants and volatile organic compounds, which are precursors to ground-level ozone or smog. The EPA’s new proposal allows a portion of this requirement to continue but only for some operations.

The previous rule applied only to new, modified, and reconstructed oil and gas operations, while calling for development of regulations to cover some million operating gas and oil wells. The proposal removes that requirement.

The proposal has divided the oil industry. BP and several large oil companies support the tighter 2016 measures to cut methane emissions. Others, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, applaud the proposed rollback. Environmental groups universally oppose weakening methane emission controls.

Oil and gas drilling operations emit one-third of US methane air emissions and are the largest single source. Carbon dioxide emissions are greater than methane by quantity; however, in the first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane is 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

The US is currently experiencing a huge jump in natural gas production and use, yet scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others have warned that swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is required to stem the worse impacts of global warming.


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