Methane, the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide, is a short-lived but extremely powerful greenhouse gas. This is why the Obama administration is moving to curb methane emissions from the largest source of U.S. methane emissions—the oil and gas sector. In August, the EPA proposed methane emission standards for new and modified oil and gas drilling wells. Although this rule is an important and much needed first step, more must be done, including establishing similar standards for existing oil wells, and comprehensively addressing all of the sector’s unnecessary emissions.
Methane emissions are a big deal
Methane is some 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20 year period and anywhere from 28 to 36 times more potent over a 100 year timeframe. Because methane emissions pack a much bigger heat-trapping punch than carbon dioxide, these emissions are a big threat to our climate, and we produce and emit a lot of methane.
The three largest methane emitters are the oil and gas sector, the agricultural sector, and the waste management sector (which I already told you about). Collectively they dump the equivalent of between 450 and 550 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually – comparable to the emissions from more than 100 million cars.
But besides being a potent greenhouse gas, methane is a fuel gas that can be captured, burned, and converted to carbon dioxide, significantly reducing its global warming potential and generating useful energy. However, capturing methane from any of these sectors just so that it can be flared is a waste–a big waste. And, flaring, as a practice, is a choice; a choice that results in significant unnecessary climate emissions.
Flaring has significant climate implications
As we are learning from a pair of reports released last week by researchers at Argonne National Laboratory looking at Bakken shale (North Dakota) and Eagle Ford shale (Texas) oil production, excessive flaring at domestic oil extraction operations has significant and avoidable climate implications.
The comparison between Bakken and Eagle Ford oil is particularly useful because these are both domestic resources, these oils are both light and gassy (they each liberate copious amounts of methane during extraction), and they are both recovered from shale formations using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Since these oils are so similar, one would expect their emissions to be similar as well. However, flaring emissions from the Bakken were found to be nearly 2.5 times greater than similar emissions from the Eagle Ford. These data indicate that effective regulations around oil and gas extraction need to move beyond measures to simply mitigate methane release and need to include standards that minimize the wasteful practice of unnecessary flaring. And we know flaring is unnecessary because certain jurisdictions, such as Norway and Texas, choose not to do it, or choose to do significantly less of it.
Methane produced during oil extraction should be viewed as a resource to be harnessed rather than a waste to be managed. This common sense perspective suggests that further regulations on the oil and gas sector are needed, beyond what EPA has currently proposed.
Fewer methane emissions are good–more flaring is not
In January of 2015, the Obama Administration set a new goal to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels over the next decade. EPA’s proposed methane regulations for the oil and gas sector would require 95% of fugitive methane emissions from hydraulically fractured oil wells to be mitigated.
To be clear, we support these proposals, but these rules would only apply to new and modified wells, and compliance would only require destruction of captured methane, meaning that methane flaring would not be affected. In fact, flaring would be a means of complying with the methane rules, as equivalent emissions standards or limits for carbon dioxide have not been proposed. Obviously there is still more work to be done to extend appropriate controls to existing and aging infrastructure. Beyond methane emission limits, broader performance standards need to be considered to reduce methane flaring and address overall climate emissions.
Methane is a valuable fuel gas that can be used to generate energy, and it is produced in large quantities by certain operations in the oil and gas sector, such as fracking light oils from shale. Since this is known up-front, it makes sense to put in place the necessary equipment to capture and use this resource before establishing new wells rather than flaring, wasting and trying to clean things up later, after extraction has begun.
If we are serious about tackling climate change, performance standards are needed in the oil and gas sector that not only mandate reductions in methane emissions (fugitive or otherwise), but that limit the overall use of flaring as well.
Capturing methane is only the first step, and we must also take the next step of using that captured methane responsibly. To do this, methane needs to be viewed as a resource rather than a nuisance to be managed. Making use of available methane is the proverbial opportunity to make lemonade from our lemons. This view could make future climate rules so much stronger.