Political fight coming over EPA’s new fugitive methane reduction program

Industry cautious, eco-activists displeased with Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program, designed to reduce fugitive methane emissions

The EPA can’t seem to get it right. Eco-activists want fugitive methane emissions regulated, industry wants voluntary measures, and both sides are uncertain about the Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program, launched Friday.

fugitive methane

Fenner Stewart, Director, Midwest Center for Energy Law & Policy, University of Calgary.

In January, the White House announced a goal of cutting methane pollution from the oil and gas industry 40 to 45 per cent from 2012 levels by 2025. The voluntary Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program will recognize companies that go above and beyond to reduce fugitive methane emissions from wells and processing and handling facilities.

The Environmental Protection Agency is hosting a series of webinars July 28 to 30 to provide details about the program and is considering feedback submitted through Sept. 1, with the official launch later in 2015.

 

Regulations researcher Fenner Stewart says that at first glance there appear to be plenty of problems with the new program.

“It is not even clear to me what the benchmark for success is. To meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also power
modern society, a coherent, long-term strategy with international and public-private cooperation is needed,” he said.

Stewart makes the point that everyone involved in the issue of fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas activities needs to be on board and cooperating, but that doesn’t appear happening with the Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program.

fugitive methane

Industry says it has made significant reductions in past decade.

“With one look at the gap between stakeholders in this policy network, the challenges are obvious and daunting,” he said. “Within this context, EPA’s Methane Challenge might prove to be a small step in the right direction. It’s hard to tell.”

Stewart says the EPA’s program is in line with “modern regulatory thinking,” which advocates harnessing incentives, private auditing, and reporting mechanisms to produce targeted results.

“Critics of such regulation argue that it does not have the teeth to bring about change. Advocates counter that without the cooperation of private actors that are being regulated, governments do not have the information and power to produce targeted results, so they need to work with industry in order to affect change,” he said.

“Critics, obviously, are cynical of this reasoning.”

fugitive methane

Meleah Geertsma, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says most oil and gas methane pollution comes from leaks and intentional venting that can be identified and curbed with existing, low-cost technology and better maintenance practices. NRDC released a report last fall that it claims shows how EPA can cut methane emissions in half, while dramatically reducing harmful air pollution at the same time, by issuing federal standards.

“The industry would like us to believe it will reduce this potent climate pollution out of the goodness of their hearts—we don’t buy it. If voluntary measures worked, they’d already be in place,” said Meleah Geertsma, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in a release.

“In order to meet the Administration’s commendable methane reduction goals, we need legally required nationwide standards. A self-policing approach is no substitute.”

Stewart says the the EPA has alienated industry by not acknowledging recent progress in reducing fugitive methane emissions. Marty Durbin, CEO of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, points out that industry has voluntarily cut emissions from production activities by 38 per cent since 2005 while increasing production by 35 per cent. He says that “it is clear” that direct regulation will lead to regulatory uncertainty and fewer reductions over a longer period of time.

“We have always said that the best way to achieve reductions in methane is through collaborative measures,” said he said in a release.

The Sierra Club echoed NRDC’s call for regulation, saying that when it comes to “powerful climate pollutants” like methane, voluntary measures can never go far enough, and arguing that the fossil fuel industry cannot be expected to hold itself accountable.

“It’s a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house. We are encouraged by the Administration’s commitment to follow this voluntary program with binding protections to curb methane pollution from some sources in the oil and gas industry,” said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s dirty fuel initiative.

“However, the Administration must be even more ambitious and regulate all sources of methane in the industry, including existing sources. And in the end, regulation can never make fracking safe. Instead, we need to keep dirty fuels like oil, coal, and gas in the ground while moving as quickly as possible to clean energy prosperity.”

fugitive methane

Ed Ireland, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

Independent Petroleum Association of America argued that energy producers are already incentivized to capture more fugitive emissions with the help of new and innovative technologies because methane, the primary component of natural gas, has economic value. The group praised the Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge for rightly choosing to create multiple opportunities for company participation and noted that a flexible voluntary program with “appropriate incentives for participation” will be the fastest and most effective way to further reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector.

“It remains to be seen whether the options proposed by EPA will be workable and whether EPA will provide appropriate incentives for participation,” said Matthew Kellogg, general counsel for the IPAA.

“Additionally, there are concerns about the complexity and utility of the record keeping and reporting requirements associated with the voluntary program.”

Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Education Council, says industry is approaching the the program with caution.

“The oil and natural gas industry has indicated that they look forward to reviewing the program  to see how it would work in tandem with existing and upcoming regulations,” he said in an email.

 

 

 

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