A Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. Nicholas A. Tonelli | Flickr Commons
By Tom Shepstone
A lot has been written recently about a new methane rule being adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and announced in Pittsburgh by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Aug. 13.
Predictably, folks with biases and lack of basic understanding of the natural gas industry have jumped at the opportunity to deem them “rollbacks,” presidential politics and a Trump plan to win Pennsylvania again. That’s not the real story, though.
While a host of articles quoting environmental special interests to the effect that “it’s all politics” have been published, none seem to bother to look at what the EPA itself has said. It makes perfect sense to anyone who takes the time to do so.
It’s important to grasp that the politics are irrelevant; no one serious about this stuff doesn’t understand President Barack Obama’s decision to impose new EPA methane rules as he was going out the door were a political bone thrown to special interests seeking to halt all natural gas development. Reversing a political decision is no more political than the initial act and arguably far less so.
Secondly, when one wades through the jargon-loaded EPA explanation for the proposed rule it quickly revealed what the reasons are for a change.
The EPA rules in question are those from 2012, when the agency established a rule for the emission of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and a 2016 last minute Obama rule that imposed additional standards for greenhouse gas in the form of limitations on methane even though the VOC rules already addressed the issue.
But, here’s the thing; the 2016 methane requirements, according to EPA, are “entirely redundant with the existing [rule] for VOC and, thus, establish no additional health protections.” It’s harder to get much more clear than that but not much ink is being used to mention this simple fact. Few are pointing out the politics of what Obama did or the real practical effect; who needs two sets of requirements to accomplish the same thing?
Moreover, it’s all being accomplished by the industry and the states anyway. All that’s needed is a threshold requirement by EPA combined with whatever regulation the states wish to add and employment of industry best practices.
Those best practices are already getting the job done. We’ve seen a steady reduction in methane emissions over several years because, unsurprisingly, gas companies sell methane and have a direct incentive to capture as much of it as they can.
Developing a means to capture and create a marketplace within the industry to utilize methane is a testament to the ingenuity of the industry. This same innovation has taken place in Pennsylvania and has helped effectuate real environmental gains in the region; technological innovations has worked to help Pennsylvania and Ohio reduce methane intensity by more than 75 percent since 2011. Moreover, these gains were realized in the midst of increasing natural gas production and consumer use.
Remember, the decline in methane emissions was going on before the Obama EPA got involved.
Indeed, the EPA itself shows “Methane emissions in the United States decreased by 18.1 percent between 1990 and 2018. During this time period, emissions increased from sources associated with agricultural activities, while emissions decreased from sources associated with landfills, coal mining, and from natural gas and petroleum systems.”
And, here is a striking fact; methane emission rates from five of the largest U.S. oil and gas producing regions, have fallen more than 60 percent since 2011 despite production in those regions having tripled.
There are, too, several industry partnership initiatives across the country that are dedicating to accelerating the reduction in methane emissions. These include, for instance, the Environmental Partnership in which numerous gas companies are involved.
The Partnership has targeted leak detection, replacing high-bleed pneumatic controllers with low or zero-emission devices, improving the manual liquids unloading process and minimizing emissions associated with centrifugal and reciprocating compressors as well as pipeline blowdowns.
The Partnership has many accomplishments already. Some 43 companies no longer use high-bleed pneumatic controllers and 3,300 such have been replaced, retrofitted or removed, along with 10,500 other gas driven controllers.
Yes, there is huge progress and it is way past time we stop punishing the process with expensive, unnecessary, duplicative make work regulations. Call it whatever you want but it is progress toward the goals on which we all agree. It is a case of “let’s roll” rather than “rollback.
Tom Shepstone is a natural gas industry consultant and analyst, and editor of NaturalGasNow.org. He resides in Honesdale, Pa.
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