EPA Guidance on Curbing Methane From Oil, Gas Wells Nearly Done, Official Says

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By Andrew Childers

Nov. 13 — The Environmental Protection Agency is close to issuing guidance for reducing methane emissions from oil and natural gas wells, a senior agency official said Nov. 13.

“We’re getting pretty close to having that blueprint completed and ready to unveil,” Joe Goffman, EPA associate assistant administrator for climate and senior counsel to the assistant administrator for air and radiation, said during an Environmental Law Institute webinar.

The EPA also may propose a rule by the end of the year seeking to close gaps in the methane emissions data it collects from the oil and gas industry as part of its mandatory greenhouse gas reporting program, Goffman said. The proposal would require oil and gas systems to report additional methane emissions data from facilities such as gathering and boosting sites, he said.

In March, the White House asked the EPA to reconsider whether methane from oil and natural gas systems should be directly regulated as part of its broader strategy to reduce methane emissions. If the agency determines additional controls are necessary and feasible, the EPA could finalize methane regulations by March 2016.

The EPA set new source performance standards for oil and gas wells in 2012, but that rule didn't directly regulate methane emissions. Since then, the EPA has issued five white papers for peer review seeking input on methods to control methane emissions and leaks from oil and gas wells and pipelines.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in September that the strategy will emphasize efficiency and reducing the need to flare gas, as well as incentives to natural gas producers to capture and sell more of the gas that they typically would vent or flare.

Existing Standards Working

Although the EPA's 2012 standards didn't directly regulate methane, emissions from oil and gas wells have declined steeply while production has boomed, Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said during the webinar.

The oil and natural gas sector's methane emissions decreased by 17 percent between 1990 and 2012 while production increased 37 percent during that period, according to Feldman. The EPA's 2012 rule won't be completely implemented until 2015, and the agency should wait until it is fully in effect before deciding whether further regulations are necessary, he said.

“Now is the opportunity to let regulations that have already been put in place be enacted, move forward and from there see what the next step is,” Feldman said.

He also said he was disappointed the EPA has not yet updated five white papers it released for peer review examining potential control technologies for methane emissions before moving forward with new guidelines for the industry.

Goffman also acknowledged the largest methane reductions have come from hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells, which saw their emissions decrease by 73 percent between 2011 and 2013.

“What that suggests to us is one of the underlying pieces of logic from the 2012 [new source performance standards] is the standards and requirements under the 2012 rule are aligning with where the sector is going,” Goffman said.

Voluntary Programs Preferred 

The methane guidance is expected to include voluntary programs that provide companies with incentives to prevent methane leaks.

Goffman said the White House's methane strategy instructed the EPA to look beyond its regulatory programs for opportunities to reduce methane emissions. The EPA soon will finalize its proposed Natural Gas STAR Gold program, which highlights steps companies are taking to reduce methane emissions and provides guidance to facilities seeking to reduce leaks, he said.

Feldman said voluntary programs are preferable because they can be instituted quicker and aren't as burdensome as the EPA's regulations.

Environmental groups and some states have pushed the EPA to directly regulate methane from fracked wells through technology-based new source performance standards.

Tomás Carbonell, an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said technologies are readily available and already being used by the oil and natural gas industry to control methane emissions.

“We think there’s opportunity in this sector to build a regulatory program around technology-based standards,” he said during the webinar.

Better Data Needed

In addition to its methane strategy, the EPA also is expected to propose this year or early in 2015 new methane reporting requirements for the oil and natural gas industry.

Environmental groups and academics have criticized the EPA for significantly underestimating the industry's methane emissions.

Goffman said the proposed rule would close “gaps in coverage, particularly at gathering and boosting sites” and other points along the oil and natural gas supply chain.

Feldman said the data reported to the EPA as part of the greenhouse gas reporting program already is driving oil and natural gas companies to take additional steps to control methane emissions.

“People understand, and this is already mentioned, that methane is a product. If you’re making widgets, you don’t want widgets going out the door without being accounted for,” Feldman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Childers in Washington at achilders@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl in Washington at lpearl@bna.com