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Study says EPA underestimates methane release numbers; industry leaders question
FARMINGTON — An environmental group has unveiled some of the nuts and bolts of a seven-year study on the impacts of oil and gas extraction in America that states methane emission levels are much higher than Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
The study found that the benefits of using natural gas are offset by the effects of unplanned venting releases at the sites of natural gas wells, something the study attempted to measure.
“Methane will react and become C02 in the atmosphere, and the impacts will persist,” the Environmental Defense Fund’s associate chief scientist Ramon Alvarez said.
The group said the study found that methane emissions from the production process are large enough to have a big impact on the climate in the short term.
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These emissions are “not inherent to the supply chain. …The existing technology can reduce these emissions” in a cost-effective way, Alvarez said.
The Environmental Defense Fund study, published in the journal Science, found skepticism from leaders in the oil and gas industry, which maintains that methane levels are going down, and industry is working to improve those numbers.
“This paper is consistent with the fact that methane emissions were low in 2015 and reaffirms the benefits of increased use of natural gas as a fuel source, which is driving US carbon dioxide emissions downward,” American Petroleum Institute upstream group director Erik Milito stated on the association’s website. “The industry has achieved continued emissions reductions thanks in large part to technology advancements and this innovation has been fundamentally important to our shared goal to reduce emissions."
He said methane emissions have dropped 14 percent since 1990 “during the same period that natural gas production has increased more than 50 percent.”
Milito also questioned the methodology used in the report.
“While API will review the specifics of the paper, previous studies have demonstrated the limitations of relying of airborne measurements alone to draw firm conclusions on methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry,” he said.
The report drew little comment from the EPA Thursday. An unnamed spokesperson responded via email, “We are looking forward to reviewing this study.”
The EPA’s response also noted that the agency conducts a greenhouse gas emissions inventory annually.
“As a part of the annual Inventory development process, EPA assesses new studies for data that could inform Inventory updates,” the agency said.
Methane is a greenhouse gas scientists credit with contributing to global warming.
High leak rate found in study
The study states that oil and gas extraction across the U.S. “emits 13 million metric tons of methane from its operations each year—nearly 60 percent more than currently estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” EDF said on its website.
The new study found that the “leak rate from the U.S. oil and gas system is 2.3 percent, versus the current EPA inventory estimate of 1.4 percent. While the percentages seem small, the volume represents enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes — lost gas worth an estimated $20 billion.”
The study cited storage tanks, where gas and liquids are separated, as the cause of most but not all methane leakage.
The extra methane released during unplanned venting of tanks is to relieve internal pressure.
“They’re venting just because they’re not supposed to hold pressure,” Alvarez said.
“These studies, synthesized in this Science paper, have transformed our understanding of methane emissions from natural gas systems in the United States,” said professor David Allen of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
He contributed to the new paper and was lead author on several of the earlier studies, the EDF release noted.
Industry moves to cap leaks
The oil and gas industry doesn’t dispute that some methane is leaking and, if captured, could be sold.
How to regulate leaking oil and gas extraction sites has been a major point of contention recently, with the Obama administration clamping down in 2016 on methane emissions at well sites and the Trump administration rolling back restrictive rules in 2017.
New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesperson Robert McEntyre said the study ignores progress made by the industry and seems to reshape old data to come to a new conclusion.
“I think we really have to be skeptical about some of these results when they differ so much from the published data in this area,” McEntyre said.
He said he takes issue with any value placed on a study that itself is based on data that has previously reached different results.
“It certainly appears to be an outlier among other studies," he said.
McEntyre said EPA data show that emissions have dropped 47 percent in the San Juan Basin between 2011 and 2016, and by 6 percent in Texas’ Permian Basin.
He said more pipeline capacity is needed to expedite delivery of the product from the field, as is clearing the Bureau of Land management’s permit backlog and creating reliable and consistent “regulatory expediency and clarity.”
Is fixing things a priority?
One key point noted by many in the industry during recent battles over the Obama-era’s strict methane capture rules is whether investing in methane capture equipment for older and lower-producing wells would make such a well into a money loser.
EDF chief scientist Steven Hamburg, a co-author who fielded media questions Thursday, told reporters he couldn’t speak for industry, but “The fact you can do this cost effectively does not mean it is a priority.”
He said many people don’t manage their energy use in their homes, even though there are things “that will give you a quick payback.”
“Scientists have uncovered a huge problem, but also an enormous opportunity,”
Hamburg said on the EDF website. “Reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is the fastest, most cost-effective way we have to slow the rate of warming today, even as the larger transition to lower-carbon energy continues.”
The study’s authors point to companies, including BP, ExxonMobil and its subsidiary XTO Energy, that have moved to reduce methane leaks and capture more of the product.
“Although we confirmed that methane emissions are substantially higher than previously thought, the good news is that our new understanding provides a cost-effective path forward to eliminate the wastage of this valuable resource,” said Allen Robinson, co-author and professor and department head of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Eye in the sky to seek methane plumes
EDF is also working on a satellite monitoring system to track methane emissions.
MethaneSAT would be designed to “measure and map human-caused methane emissions almost anywhere on earth,” the group said.
With a target launch date somewhere during 2021, EDF said MethaneSAT could be a tool to help both countries — and companies — “track problem areas, find solutions, and monitor their progress.”
“Federal and state government must take action — and many states are — but industry leadership remains crucial,” EDF senior vice president Mark Brownstein said in EDF’s release. “Companies have the ability to lead through operational best practices, comprehensive methane programs, target setting, technology innovation and pilots, and constructively engaging with the regulatory process.”
McEntyre, of NMOGA, seconded that sentiment.
“We couldn’t agree more,” McEntyre said, adding that the oil and gas industry is moving in that direction but not always getting the credit it deserves.
McEntyre said it’s frustrating to him that EDF continues to throw up these numbers, but has no solutions.
He said the industry is engaged in efforts to build tech and innovate to keep moving in the right direction. “On the flip side, you have groups like these who don’t want to acknowledge what industry does.”
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