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The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tighter controls Tuesday on the oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases that causes climate change.
As world leaders meet in Scotland this week to seek international agreements to slow and mitigate the effects of climate change, federal regulators released a draft of a new rule to require oil and gas companies to monitor and reduce emissions of methane, a gas that is released during the drilling of oil wells and can be leaked from oil and gas equipment.
“It is now abundantly clear that America is back and leading by example in confronting the climate crisis with bold ambition,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “With this historic action, EPA is addressing existing sources from the oil and natural gas industry nationwide, in addition to updating rules for new sources, to ensure robust and lasting cuts in pollution across the country.”
The rule, if approved, could require companies to use specialized equipment to identify the colorless gas on a quarterly basis and repair leaks, as well as impose tighter restrictions on controlling emissions from both new and old wells. The EPA estimates the rule could reduce methane emissions by 41 million tons by 2035. The agency intends to issue a final rule before the end of 2022.
Texas will play a key role in the nation’s efforts to reduce methane emissions. The state produces the largest share of the nation’s oil, a major contributor to global methane emissions. But state leaders have protested calls to shift the energy industry — a key pillar of the state’s economy — away from its reliance on producing the greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.
After United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Texas needs to reduce its reliance on oil — and suggested the state could lead the way in a transition to renewable energy sources — Gov. Greg Abbott responded with a tweet that said “Pound Sand” and pointed to high gasoline prices to argue that “Texas oil and gas is needed right now.”
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to questions about the proposed methane rule.
Methane emissions are the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide, and methane is commonly referred to as a “potent” greenhouse gas because of its dramatic ability to warm the earth. Methane traps about 30 to 90 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, but lasts in the atmosphere for a few decades rather than a few centuries.
For that reason, climate scientists say that cutting methane emissions is one of the most effective short-term tools humanity has to reduce immediate damage from climate change.
The EPA’s proposed rule comes after UN scientists said in a recent report that the oil and gas industry has the largest potential of any sector to reduce its methane emissions and as the U.S. and the European Union announced a pledge to dramatically cut the potent greenhouse gas’ emissions. It also follows intense questioning of oil and gas company executives by a congressional committee last week.
The committee questioned top executives at major companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron the same day that the president announced the revised framework for the Build Back Better Act that targets $555 billion for climate initiatives.
Congress is still negotiating whether to include a fee on methane emissions in the legislation, which oil and gas lobbying groups have opposed. During the House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on climate misinformation Thursday, U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., pressed ExxonMobil, Chevron Corp., Shell and BP executives on their support for trade organizations that have sought to block the fee.
“You’re funding these groups, and they’re really having an impact,” Khanna said. “You could tell them to knock it off, for the sake of the planet. You could end the lobbying.”
The executives did not commit to ending their support for such groups, instead stating that they would be “active members.”
The largest source of methane emissions in the U.S. is from fossil fuels, according to a 2020 study in Environmental Research Letters. Sixty percent of methane concentrations in the atmosphere come from human sources, like cow patties, landfills and oil production. Globally, the agriculture and waste sector and the fossil fuel sector contributed roughly the same increases in methane concentrations to the atmosphere in 2017.
Methane emissions are climbing — and they didn’t slow last year even as lower economic activity early in the COVID-19 pandemic caused carbon dioxide emissions to fall. Instead, concentrations of methane increased by 15 parts per billion last year, the biggest increase since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s records began almost four decades ago. Scientists say methane emissions don’t follow short-term economic activity as closely. For example, the number of cattle was largely unchanged by business closures in 2020, but carbon dioxide emissions fell dramatically when many people stopped driving their cars.
“When I see big jumps, that’s frightening because methane is such a strong warming agent,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University. “We’re loading the atmosphere with additional warming.”
The Texas oil and gas industry has been under pressure for years to curb methane emissions that escape during production as natural gas, which is primarily made up of methane and other hydrocarbons, comes up along with oil during fracking.
“Every natural gas leak, or intentional release of natural gas through venting or other processes, constitutes a release of methane,” according to the EPA’s proposed rule. “Reducing human-caused methane emissions, such as controlling natural gas leaks and releases as proposed in these actions, would contribute substantially to global efforts to limit temperature rise.”
The colorless gas can leak from oil and gas equipment during normal operations. Companies also burn off natural gas in the oilfields when drilling wells or during emergencies, such as when facilities need to shut down on short notice.
At times, the industry burns off excess gas that is unearthed along with oil (a higher-priced product) in a process called flaring. If a flare isn’t wholly lit, raw methane escapes into the atmosphere.
Routine flaring without permission from regulators is barred by state law, but companies often request exceptions from the rules; the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, authorized almost 7,000 flaring and venting exceptions in 2019, according to agency data. In 2020, the agency granted about 4,500 exceptions, according to agency data, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused an economic downturn in the oil and gas industry.
Railroad Commission spokesperson Andrew Keese said agency data suggests there has been a positive downward trend of flaring in Texas. Keese added that the Railroad Commission revised its exception form last year to require more detailed data, which he said puts the agency in a better position to track compliance and correct potential violations.
But multiple independent analyses, including one by S&P Global using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite data, found that oil and gas companies are flaring gas in the field more frequently than approved by regulators. Instruments placed by the Environmental Defense Fund to detect methane in West Texas’ Permian Basin, a major oil-producing shale play, have found that oil and gas facilities are leaking raw methane into the air.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the EPA sought to issue rules that would plug those methane leaks in the oilfield, but they were never implemented after the agency rolled them back under the Trump administration.
This week’s draft rule is stronger than the Obama-era rule. It could impose rules on older oil wells that previously avoided regulation. While it stops short of a flat-out ban on flaring, the rule would require operators to monitor flares to detect malfunctions that result in increased methane emissions.
Texas flares the most gas of any state. It also produces the most oil, 40% of the nation’s crude. Regulators have insisted that they’ve cracked down on flaring, an unpopular practice among both Republicans and Democrats. Flaring in Texas was down 50% in 2020 versus 2019 as the pandemic spurred a downturn in oil production, according to an analysis of satellite data by S&P Global Platts, and Texas oil producers burn less natural gas per barrel of oil produced than in North Dakota.
But 2020 data shows that reducing flaring won’t be enough to curb emissions of methane from Texas’ oilfields. While the amount of flared gas has fallen, methane emissions in the West Texas oilfield have continued to climb due to leaking gases from production facilities, according to data compiled by S&P Global Platts Analytics.
“Venting or leakage occurs frequently, specifically in the Permian Basin,” said Andrew Cooper, a low-carbon crude analyst at S&P Global Platts.
He said equipment and storage leaks, unlit flares and old oil wells contribute to methane emissions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates air emissions in Texas, would be charged with implementing the EPA’s rule on such “fugitive” emissions (like the methane leaks from equipment).
State leaders resist climate efforts
The Texas Railroad Commission has long been criticized for not taking a stronger stance on methane emissions. But the Republican commissioners, who are elected in statewide races, have loudly protested the claim that they haven’t controlled the politically unpopular practice of flaring.
“Citizens are not aware of the good job our staff and this industry has done for a cleaner environment,” Chair Wayne Christian said during a meeting last week.
Still, Christian also called the proposed federal rule on methane “very dangerous.”
“That’s a high-cost risk to every family in the United States,” Christian said.
David Cooney Jr., an attorney in the Railroad Commission’s office of general counsel, said the agency is “poised and ready to cooperate” with the federal rules.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, said during the committee hearing with oil executives Thursday that the Biden administration’s climate policies were a “relentless attack” on energy workers and argued that political leaders should instead support the oil and gas industry to spur technology to reduce emissions.
“Instead of vilifying them and trying to end their existence, Congress should be working with them,” Brady said.
Some oil companies have already announced plans to cut back on methane emissions. Royal Dutch Shell said it plans to end routine flaring by 2025, five years earlier than its previous target, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Despite some industry commitments, the EPA rule, if implemented, would be a sharp shift for Texas oil producers that have enjoyed less stringent rules than producers in neighboring states such as New Mexico and Colorado, which have dramatically reduced flaring, venting and leaks through regulation, according to data compiled by S&P Global Platts Analytics.
Scientists say the benefits to cutting methane concentrations in the atmosphere are significant: It would “especially contribute” to reducing climate change-related damages in the near term and decrease peak warming during this century, according to the recent UN report. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are currently 260% higher than during pre-industrial times.
“We can do something about the excess methane in the atmosphere in a decade, easily, if we choose to, and have a strong bang for our buck,” said Jackson, the Stanford University scientist.
Mitchell Ferman contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Environmental Defense Fund and Exxon Mobil Corp. have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.