Skip Page Banner  
Skip Navigation

EPA Meeting With Other Agencies on Ways to Cut Methane Emissions, Senate Panel Told

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

By Dean Scott

Nov. 5 --The Environmental Protection Agency has been meeting with other agencies in recent months to find ways to cut methane emissions, including actions they could take using existing regulatory authority, an EPA official told a Senate subcommittee Nov. 5.

President Barack Obama's June climate plan established the interagency panel to address methane, according to Sarah Dunham, director of the EPA's Office of Atmospheric Programs. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas.

Methane accounts for just 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 28 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, Dunham told the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Oversight. But those emissions are projected to rise in the coming decades, she said.

The interagency panel, which draws from the EPA as well as the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Labor, and Transportation, has been overshadowed by Obama's decision under his climate plan to direct EPA to finalize power plant greenhouse gas limits .

But the methane group has a broad mandate to develop what Dunham called a “comprehensive interagency methane strategy” to cut those emissions, which have declined 8 percent since 1990 but are projected to climb between 3 percent and 9 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels.

“The EPA is currently working with other agencies to assess emissions data, address data gaps and identify opportunities to further reduce methane emissions through incentive-based programs and existing authorities,” Dunham told the subcommittee. She did not provide a date for when the interagency panel could complete its review.

Differing Estimates of 'Fugitive’ Methane

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who chairs the subcommittee, held the hearing to focus on what he called “fugitive methane emissions” such as those flared from natural gas sites or lost during hydraulic fracturing, a process used in natural gas extraction.

Whitehouse said about one-third of U.S. fugitive methane emissions are produced from petroleum and natural gas operations.

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the subcommittee's top Republican, said EPA has continued to overstate the amount of methane lost to the atmosphere from such operations. Inhofe has questioned the EPA's estimates as it has moved to regulate hydraulic fracturing operations, including the first air pollution standards for fracking operations, which it finalized in April 2012 .

Inhofe Cites Existing Economic Incentives

Inhofe credited the agency for making some changes to its formula for estimating methane emissions, but he said the focus on fracturing operations and their greenhouse gas emissions has contributed to “alarm” about the industry that is undeserved. The natural gas industry has “every incentive” to reduce such emissions, he said.

“Methane is natural gas, and when a company is in the business of extracting natural gas from the earth, their shareholders rightly demand that they do this without letting millions of dollars of their product vent into the atmosphere,” Inhofe said.

The EPA has estimated that the industry is losing less than 2 percent of its total gas to the atmosphere, most of that from natural gas operations and a relatively small contribution from liquid petroleum operations. But other studies have offered a range of estimates of the U.S. methane leak rate of between 0.71 percent to 7.9 percent .

Industry Argues for Lowering Estimates

Industry representatives have touted the boom in U.S. natural gas production as a tool for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions because natural gas, when burned for power production, releases roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal.

Darren Smith, environmental policy manager for Devon Energy Corp., said the company continues to challenge what he termed EPA's “gross overestimates” of methane emissions, pointing to more conservative estimates produced in a September study by the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund. The study estimated that 0.42 percent of U.S. natural gas is released into the atmosphere .

Dunham, the EPA official, said the agency continues to work to improve measurement methodologies and emissions estimates and noted that there “have been several recent studies and analyses that help” to improve their accuracy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bna.com

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