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methane

Want to know how close you live to a polluter?

There’s an app for that.

More than two million Texans live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility, putting them at risk of exposure to toxic fumes, according to a new app released Wednesday by national environmental groups. The online tool — which includes a searchable map — places about a fifth of the state’s area, and more than 900 Texas schools and 75 medical facilities, in the half-mile range.

The app, created by Earthworks, Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Alliance, is searchable by address and overlays the locations of oil and gas facilities and vulnerable populations with cancer and respiratory health risk information. An analysis published with the map also estimates that by 2017, 82 counties in Texas with a population of 4.1 million or more will face an elevated cancer risk.

“This [app] is so important in Texas is because of the political situation,” said Earthworks’ communications director, Alan Septoff. “The state has vowed never to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and there’s no chance the state of Texas is going to act.”

[…]

In June, about a month after the Obama administration announced plans to regulate methane leaks from new oil and gas facilities, the Texas Railroad Commission urged the state’s attorney general to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the rules. Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter has previously said the methane regulations “kill the jobs Texans rely on to support their families” and are “unnecessary” and “over-burdensome.”

Septoff said his group hopes both that the tool will be a resource to help folks living close to oil and gas activity understand the health risks they may be facing, as well as a push for the Obama administration to adopt methane regulations for facilities already in operation.

Here’s what the map for Texas looks like. There’s a ton of information on the webpage, with videos to help you use and understand the data. However you feel about regulations, you’re better off having full information available to you. Check it out.

New methane rules finalized

Gentlemen, start your lawyers.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued its final rule for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The rule limits methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure and requires operators to submit to semi-annual or quarterly monitoring, depending on the type of operation. In addition, the agency took another step toward drafting a rule that would apply to existing oil and gas operations.

“They will help keep the nation on track to help the us cut emissions from the oil and gas sector,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said on a call with reporters Thursday. The new rule will reduce emissions by 11 million tons per year of CO2 equivalent by 2025, she said.

The Obama administration has a goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. Natural gas is 80 percent methane, while oil extraction processes also often release methane trapped underground. In 2012, 30 percent of the country’s methane emissions came from oil and gas operations.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year span, so leaking methane can be a huge problem. While natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, leaks in the system can eliminate the climate benefits. Scientists have found that in the United States, methane leaks and venting have nullified any emissions benefit from transitioning the electricity sector from coal- to natural gas-fired power plants. In fact, the EPA recently found that the problem of escaping methane is even worse than initially feared. The United States currently gets a third of its electricity from natural gas, up from 24 percent in 2010.

[…]

There are, though, two key changes from the initial draft rule the EPA published last year that environmentalists welcomed. Under the new rule, natural gas compressors will be subject to quarterly monitoring — twice as often as under the proposal. In addition, low-production wells will be included in the rule. In its fact sheet, the agency credited the changes to the more than 9,000 public comments it received after the draft rule was published.

See here and here for some background. We all know what comes next, and we know it’s not over till the Supreme Court says it is. So sit back, pop open a cold one, and wait for the legal action to begin. Daily Kos and the Trib have more.

Find those leaks

I don’t care how.

A pair of state and federal government inspectors spent two weeks traveling around northern Colorado’s oil and gas fields in early 2012, filming with an infrared camera.

Air pollution was rising in the region, and attention was turning to the rapid increase in drilling activity. The inspectors focused on Houston-based Noble Energy, one of the state’s largest drillers with about 7,000 wells in the suburbs and countryside north of Denver.

With the naked eye, there was nothing to see at the nearly hundred sites they visited. But when observed through the infrared camera, again and again they saw plumes of gas radiating from the top of storage tanks near the wells.

“The infrared camera does not quantify emissions, but you can say that’s a small leak versus a big leak. And these were big leaks,” said one of the inspectors, Cindy Beeler, an energy adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in Colorado. “When we showed our findings to Noble, they were surprised.”

As the Obama administration accelerates its campaign to blunt the effects of climate change, federal regulators are turning to infrared technology to seek out emissions leaks in the country’s oil and gas fields. With state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and environmental groups embracing the technology, drillers are increasingly finding themselves staring down the lenses of infrared cameras.

Beyond government inspections, many companies are worried they soon will be required to do their own infrared scans and make what they fear will be unnecessary repairs across the country’s more than 1 million oil and gas wells. Industry lobbyists are already challenging the devices’ effectiveness.

“Part of our concern is that it really locks us in to this technology at a point in time the understanding of these fugitive emissions is really in its childhood,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The presumptive starting point for the EPA is requiring infrared.”

[…]

For decades, companies and government inspectors relied on hand-held sensors to tell them if gas was leaking. But without a means to see the emissions, one was left to guess where to hold the sensor on a drilling site that can run the size of a football field – “like trying to pin the tail on the donkey,” Beeler jokes.

Then in 2011, the EPA decided to try infrared technology, which uses variations in temperature and other environmental measures to form images – capturing everything from a mouse on the ground to escaping gas.

At the time, the primary mission was reducing the release of volatile organic compounds, a key contributor to smog, which has long been linked to asthma and lung disease in humans. But federal attention is now turning to methane, which makes up about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has an impact on global warming 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

The oil and gas industry is pressuring the EPA to look away from infrared at other cheaper technologies, like methane sensors, that would automatically detect leaks as they occur but are still in development. In a memo to EPA in December, the IPAA raised several issues about the infrared devices, including concerns about whether smaller companies could handle the cost – $100,000 each – and whether they were reliable.

“The results of the camera, the ‘pictures,’ are difficult to interpret and subject to misinterpretation, e.g., what appears to be a leak could simply be a heat plume,” the memo stated.

EPA officials countered that infrared is one of a variety of tools for gathering evidence in emissions cases that often was supported by data from the companies themselves.

“Infrared allows us to see hydrocarbons,” said Apple Chapman, associate director of EPA’s air enforcement division. “It’s a faster screening tool and a faster investigative tool.”

I don’t care what technology gets used, as long as something gets used that can reliably detect these leaks. I doubt I have to explain why some kind of voluntary compliance program is worthless. If the industry has a viable alternative to infrared that they don’t mind being required to use, then fine. If not, then infrared it is. Whatever gets the job done.

New EPA rules for methane coming

You know what will follow.

Building on already pending rules to cut methane leaks from both new oil and gas wells and those on federal lands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now plans to bring to the oil sector the tough emissions standards it previously applied to automobiles and power plants.

The change would bring federal pollution rules in line with President Barack Obama’s earlier stated promise to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas drilling at least 40 percent by 2025, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

“Based on this growing body of science, it’s become clear it’s come time for EPA to take additional action,” she said in a news conference Thursday. “We’ll start this work immediately, and we intend to work quickly.”

The EPA said it was only just beginning to put a rule together and would be reaching out to oil and gas companies next month to request emissions data, to get a better handle on the scale of the problem and the costs of fixing it.

But based on the methane rules, already pending, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells across Texas and the country are likely to be required to invest in technology like infrared cameras and methane sensors to seek out and repair natural gas leaks in their pipelines and storage tanks.

[…]

A recent study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund puts the cost of reaching Obama’s goal at 1 cent per Mcf of natural gas – less than 1 percent at current prices – when factoring in current lost revenues from escaping natural gas.

But in a conference call with reporters Thursday, Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, said costs were likely to be far higher.

He said the industry would need to see the final rule before deciding whether to take legal action, as states and coal producers have done over Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

“We’re keeping all our options on the table,” Isakower said. “The administration is catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers.”

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before. While the many, many lawsuits filed over Obama’s environmental regulations have in some cases delayed implementation for awhile, in the end the EPA and everyone who likes clean air and water has generally prevailed, as the Supreme Court has upheld the EPA’s authority to set and enforce these rules. I see no reason why this time should be different. Think Progress has more.

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.

[…]

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.

Trash into treasure

Waste Management Inc. is looking at ways to turn trash into energy, which is the next best thing to actual treasure.

“In my mind, it’s pretty simple why we’re doing it: If we don’t figure it out, somebody is, and they’ll take the waste away from us. If we lose the waste, we’ve certainly lost the business,” said Carl Rush, vice president of the company’s organic growth group, the chief vehicle for its energy investments.

The shift in thinking comes at a time when U.S. landfill collections are hitting a plateau as Americans recycle more, consumer products makers reduce packaging and many large corporations adopt “zero waste” goals.

Demand for renewable energy and fuels also is increasing, in response both to regulations requiring them and to public concerns about the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and their environmental impact.

The confluence of trends has pushed Waste Management’s leaders to take a hard look at where the company is headed, and has brought a slow and sometimes reluctant culture change to a business that had been set in its ways.

“Five years ago it would have been, ‘just put it in a hole and don’t worry about it,’ ” Rush said. Today, company officials try to avoid even using the term trash. Instead, it’s “materials” or “resources,” he said.

“It’s remarkable to me to see the change that’s taken place just in the mind-set of the people in this company.”

It’s amazing what a change in market conditions can do. Part of the issue is that there are fewer and fewer places to add landfill space that don’t run into stiff opposition from the locals, part of it is as mentioned the push everywhere to cut down on the amount of solid waste that gets generated. When faced with a declining revenue stream from an existing product line, what else is there to do but look for new ways to monetize assets? I commend Waste Management for seeking innovative solutions rather than trying to change the politics of it.