In Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Methane, Environmentalists Want More Checks On Oil And Gas Industry
As the Environmental Protection Agency prepares a new methane reduction strategy, environmental advocates are hoping for a mix of industry incentives and regulations to curb emissions of a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
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"We know enough to start to make those reductions now," said Steve Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a news conference Thursday. He added that, "where those emissions are coming from is also getting clearer," citing a raft of recent research that blames the oil and gas industry for the majority of U.S. methane emissions.
The Obama adminstration's energy policy has called for more natural gas use and less reliance on oil and coal. While generally cleaner than other carbon-belching fossil fuels, natural gas is primarily made up of methane. Methane is exponentially more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. As a result, the administration has said it would unveil a new strategy this month aimed at curbing methane emissions.
While it seems clear the administration will focus its new reduction strategy on the oil and gas industry — as opposed to other methane-causing sources, such as agriculture — no one is sure whether it will rely on incentives or regulations. So far the EPA has tackled the problem with a "flexible, voluntary" program called Natural Gas STAR that encourages the use of technologies that help prevent gas leakage, such as vapor recovery devices.
"We know as a practical matter that the most effective models are ones where regulations and incentives together can achieve good results," EDF associate vice president Mark Brownstein said. He pointed to new regulations that Colorado imposed in February, the toughest in the nation, that require the oil and gas industry to constantly monitor for leaks, replace bad equipment, and install new devices that can capture almost all vapors.
Since then, EDF hired a consultant to calculate the cost to the industry nationally if similar federal measures were adopted. They claim that all oil and gas producers would reduce emissions by 40 percent for an up-front industry-wide cost of just $2.2 billion. But, in Colorado at least, the industry has challenged price estimates, saying compliance would cost nearly double what the state regulators suggest. "These rules cost more than all prior oil and gas measures combined," John Jacus, an attorney representing the industry, testified at a hearing on the rules, according to Bloomberg News. "The rules have not been property evaluated by the division for their cost, both indirect and direct, and their cost to implement."
Methane dissipates relatively quickly compared with carbon dioxide, so measures of its potency vary. Over 100 years, methane has a climate change impact 20 times greater than carbon, the EPA says. But in the short run, over two decades, the impact is 84 times greater for methane than for carbon, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Recently, more attention in the academic literature has turned to methane as scientists try to bolster the accuracy of their climate change models, which predict global warming by 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. "Methane (CH4) emissions from natural gas production are not well quantified and have the potential to offset the climate benefits of natural gas over other fossil fuels," wrote one team of researchers in Geophysical Research Letters. In their study, they discovered that between 6 percent and 12 percent of natural gas was released into the air over a production site in Utah. In another study in February, Stanford scientists said "estimates of leakage have challenged the benefits of switching from coal to natural gas."
Despite these warnings, the EDF scientists maintain that "there's a climate advantage to using meth fuel" and that much of the natural gas that's extracted is used for purposes other than generating energy. They believe current technology can reduce its harm relatively inexpensively. "Emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as methane are key to reducing the rate of warming over the next few decades," Hamburg said.
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