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Regulating methane emissions

Get all your gas and fart jokes ready, because they’re just going to be inevitable.

The Obama administration’s plan to slash methane emissions will raise costs for the oil and gas industry, forcing energy companies to invest in new pumps, compressors and equipment to prevent leaks of the potent greenhouse gas.

Although the draft regulations advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday chiefly target new oil and gas wells, processing equipment and storage facilities, the four-pronged proposal lays the groundwork for the government to eventually go after methane leaking from existing infrastructure.

Oil and gas companies already reeling from low commodity prices warn the planned rules will throttle domestic energy development and aren’t needed in light of the industry’s voluntary work to plug leaks of methane, the primary component of natural gas.

“The oil and gas industry is leading the charge in reducing methane,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard. “The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation that could increase the cost of energy for Americans.”

The proposed regulations, set to be final next year, will add to President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy and give the administration a concrete action to talk up at international climate negotiations in Paris this December. They also mark another step in the president’s gradual move away from natural gas, a fuel he previously championed as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But the EPA’s draft rules alone won’t fulfill a White House pledge to pare oil and gas industry methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The proposed regulations along with a 2012 rule targeting new natural gas wells are expected to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by just 20 to 30 percent.

Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, stressed that the proposal is only one step toward the 2025 benchmark. “As we move forward, additional opportunities will be identified to get to that goal,” she said.

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Industry officials argue they already have a financial incentive to capture leaking natural gas and bring it to market, though the additional costs of some of those changes, such as updated compressors, valves and controllers, may exceed the potential recovery, making them a harder sell amid today’s low oil prices.

Although methane represents only about 9 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the substance is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

The industry proudly points to an 11 percent decline in methane emissions from natural gas systems since 2005, but some observers expect numbers to start climbing as a result of the oil drilling boom. Recent research suggests many leaks go undetected, so actual emissions could be much higher.

A study in Environmental Science and Technology on Tuesday suggests gathering equipment and processing facilities are leaking natural gas at rates eight times higher than EPA estimates.

Methane emissions also threaten to undo some of the climate change benefits of generating more electricity from natural gas and new EPA rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

I’m sure the energy industry is doing what it can to prevent leaks and capture the emissions that come from the leaks that do happen on active wells, but that’s not the main problem.

And there’s another methane-leaking elephant in the room: existing and abandoned oil wells. Most of the regulations target new and modified wells, but the U.S. has somewhere on the order of 3 million abandoned wells, many of which are probably leaking methane. Many existing active wells are leaking, too. A 2014 Environmental Defense Fund study noted that by 2018, upwards of 90 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector could come from wells built before 2012.

Who’s going to be responsible for those? And what does it mean for Texas?

Just as Texas leads the country in overall greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also a particularly large source for this potent warming gas. That’s in part because two major methane-emitting activities — agriculture and oil and gas drilling — are huge here. The state pumps about a third of the country’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas.

Oil and gas industry representatives have pointed to EPA data showing total greenhouse gas emissions in the country have dropped amid a drilling surge to suggest that fracking yields climate benefits — as cleaner burning natural gas replaces coal-fired power.

But measuring nation-wide methane emissions isn’t easy. Several recent peer-reviewed studies suggest that the federal government is vastly underestimating methane emissions, particularly in heavily drilled parts of the country.

In July, a series of studies centered on North Texas, for instance, found that the gas-rich Barnett Shale was leaking 50 percent more of the gas than previously thought. Human error and faulty equipment accounted for most of the emissions, the studies found, with most coming from a small percentage of sites.

Opponents of the rules say emissions still appear to be falling over time, claiming that Obama is unfairly targeting an industry that’s only responsible for a portion of the methane pollution. The agriculture sector — through cow farts and burps, for instance — emits lots of methane too. The EPA has adopted a voluntary program aimed to address that problem.

I mentioned the fart jokes, right? Cows are better organized than you might think. I’m thinking those “voluntary” regs may need to become more enforceable.

One other thing:

According to the EPA, 29 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from the oil and gas sector. Next is the agriculture sector at 26 percent: livestock emits methane through normal digestive processes. Landfills come in third place with 18 percent of the pie.

Another reason why I want to see landfills get closed, not opened. If that means treating recycling as a utility and subsidizing it as needed, I’m okay with that. Beyond all this, it’s just a matter of getting the rules finalized, then going through the inevitable litigation, because that’s what we do. Consider that another reason why the power of appointing federal judges is a big deal in the Presidential race.

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