EPA Inspector General Investigating Animas River Spill

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Andrea Vittorio

Aug. 17 — As the Environmental Protection Agency gets ready to propose methane emission limits for new oil and natural gas wells, environmental groups are already asking what's next for existing sources.

The agency's proposed standards for new and modified wells, expected sometime in August, are part of an Obama administration strategy to curb emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by as much as 45 percent by 2025.

“What we hope to see from the administration in the next week or two are regulations for the oil and gas industry that begin to move us towards achieving that goal,” which likely cannot be met unless existing sources of methane emissions are also regulated, Mark Brownstein, a vice president in the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy program, said in a media briefing Aug. 17.

Brownstein said he'll be looking at the upcoming proposal to see what the EPA's game plan is for existing sources and how such a plan may unfold over time. The agency has not said yet what it intends to do with existing sources of methane, although regulating new and modified sources under Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act would trigger requirements for existing sources under Section 111(d).

An EPA spokeswoman had “no update” on how and when the agency plans to address existing sources of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Industry representatives have called the rules unnecessary at a time when emissions from the sector are already declining. The administration has acknowledged that the sector's methane emissions have dropped by 16 percent since 1990, but they're projected to grow by more than 25 percent by 2025 without new controls.

Technology for Reductions Exists 

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, said there are proven, low-cost technologies that oil and gas companies can use to significantly reduce leaks and capture more methane.

Research commissioned by both the task force and EDF has shown that “most of these measures pay for themselves in a few years, if not a few months,” Schneider said during the briefing. “But without regulations, most companies don't bother to adopt these technologies.”

Some in the oil and gas industry have already adopted solutions from companies like FLIR Systems, which makes infrared cameras that can detect methane leaks. Brent Lammert, who directs FLIR's U.S. sales, said that in Colorado and Wyoming—where controls for fugitive emissions from oil and gas operations are in place—companies are “rapidly adopting this technology and putting it to use.”

Methane accounted for 10 percent of U.S. emissions in 2013, according to EPA data; however, field studies conducted by the EDF suggest that data may be underestimating their scale.

The group has put out a series of studies looking at how much and from where methane is escaping across the natural gas supply chain, including one scheduled for release Aug. 18 focusing on natural gas gathering facilities and processing plants.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bna.com

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

More information on EDF's work on methane is available at https://www.edf.org/climate/methane.

More information on the Clean Air Task Force's work on methane is available at http://www.catf.us/methane/methane/.