Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) — Environmental groups are asking the
Obama administration to beef up its climate plan by targeting
methane leaks in the web of valves, pipes and pumps drillers use
to produce and deliver natural gas.
While companies have a vested interest in keeping methane
bottled up on its way to customers, some gas inevitably seeps
out. That’s worrisome because methane — the primary component
of gas — is 25 times more potent than carbon at trapping heat.
The administration has embraced gas as a cleaner
alternative to coal because it produces about half the carbon
dioxide when burned to generate electricity.
Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task
Force, a Boston-based environmental group, said the U.S. won’t
meet its own climate commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 17
percent from 2005 levels by 2020 without targeting methane.
“It’s a very potent global warming pollutant,” he said.
Regulating methane “could be the great capstone to their
climate efforts,” Schneider said in an interview.
Clean Air Task Force, the Sierra Club, the Environmental
Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council will send
a letter today urging the Environmental Protection Agency to
regulate methane, both from natural gas and oil production.
Natural gas is sometimes produced alongside crude.
The groups said technologies are available to cut methane
emissions during oil and gas production by 50 percent in the
next five years. They said the EPA and Interior Department
should issue rules that will achieve the cuts.
Efforts to cut methane emissions probably will play a
prominent role in next week’s United Nations Climate Summit,
when six oil and gas producers are set to pledge to reduce their
releases and evaluate new methane-control possibilities.
“There are techniques to reduce that leakage,” White
House adviser John Podesta told reporters today on a conference
call to discuss the meeting.
Industry groups say new regulations aren’t necessary. While
natural gas production is at record levels, methane emissions
have fallen 11 percent since 1990, according to the EPA.
“The best science tells us that methane ‘leaks’ are not
large enough to erode the environmental benefits of natural
gas,” said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy In Depth,
which promotes fossil-fuel development.
President Barack Obama’s EPA estimates about 30 million
metric tons of methane was emitted in 2012, 9 percent of the
total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon accounted for a far
greater share, or more than 80 percent.
While methane is more potent, it only remains in the
atmosphere about 12 years, according to the EPA. Carbon lingers
for decades. About one-third of the methane emissions come from
oil and gas production and transmission.
EPA head Gina McCarthy told an industry group this month
that the agency would decide before the end of the year whether
the regulate emissions.
New rules that take effect at the start of the year
targeting smog-causing pollutants will also reduce methane,
though the gas isn’t specifically targeted.
A study by ICF International Inc. released earlier this
year said companies could cut methane emissions relatively
cheaply, at a cost of one cent per thousand cubic feet of
“We can’t afford to wait and see whether oil and gas
companies voluntarily clean up their act when operations are
expanding so rapidly across the country,” Jeremy Symons, a
senior director of climate policy at EDF, said in an e-mail.
Companies said costs are likely to be higher than
environmental groups suggest, in response to white papers EPA
released on methane emission leaks.
Sempra Energy, for example, said cost estimates for
replacing seals on compressors, machines that increase pressure
to push natural gas throughout the system, could be as much as
$250,000, or more than triple the $75,000 EPA estimate.
In November, researchers published a paper in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that said methane
emissions are probably 50 percent higher than EPA estimates.
The researchers measured methane in the atmosphere, drawing
criticism from industry groups that said ground-level
measurements are more reliable.
The magazine Science published a report by researchers at
Stanford University, the Energy Department’s National Renewable
Energy Laboratory, and other schools and scientific groups who
measured levels in the air and on the ground.
It found that leaks, while likely higher than the EPA
estimates, weren’t sufficient to erase natural gas’s climate
advantage over coal.
“Natural gas can be a bridge to a sustainable energy
future, but that bridge must be traversed carefully,” Garvin
Heath, an NREL scientist, said in a statement when the study was
Rob Jackson, a professor of earth sciences at Stanford
University who has studied methane emissions, said most gas
wells don’t leak significant amounts. It’s important to quickly
identify those that do, he said.
“A little bit of methane leakage goes a long way,” he
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