Infrastructure is key to reducing methane emissions — not more regulations

Infrastructure is key to reducing methane emissions — not more regulations
© Getty Images

Anti-fossil fuel “Keep it in the ground” groups have a number of go-to talking points on fracking, one of which is suggesting that companies are recklessly venting and flaring methane at increasing levels. The Sierra Club claims energy companies are “currently allowed to flare or leak unlimited amount of methane pollution into our air,” and only federal regulation will be effective at reducing emissions.

In reality, those emissions are already declining — even as U.S. oil production recently hit an all-time high.

The latest draft version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows that methane emissions from venting and flaring associated with onshore petroleum production declined 40 percent from 2015 to 2016. EPA also acknowledges a 7 percent reduction in methane emissions from petroleum systems since 1990, which is “due primarily to decreases in tank emissions and associated gas venting.”


Since 2012, venting and flaring emissions have dropped 56 percent, while crude oil production has increased 36 percent. Meanwhile, data released last year by the World Bank-led Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) show that U.S. flaring decreased 25 percent from 2015 to 2016.


It should come as no surprise, then, that the Trump administration has decided to scale back a federal venting and flaring rule from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which was finalized in the closing days of the Obama administration. The rule’s most ardent defenders claim that federal regulation is necessary to minimize waste and maximize returns for taxpayers. But these data show that’s already happening, even without meddling from a federal bureaucracy. 

But if emissions are already declining, then why are environmental groups still defending federal methane rules, much less arguing that regulations need to be strengthened? The answer: The goal isn’t reducing emissions. It’s shutting down the industry.

For example, in North Dakota — the nation’s second largest oil producing state – stringent caps on venting and flaring have curtailed Bakken Shale oil production. As the Associated Press reported last month, “Fearing sanctions by the state, some North Dakota oil drillers have begun cutting output to control the amount of natural gas that's being burned off at well sites and wasted as a byproduct of crude production.”

North Dakota, much like the United States, has dramatically reduced emissions from venting and flaring in recent years, but state rules — even if implemented with the best of intentions — are nonetheless blocking production. That means less royalty and tax revenue, as well as fewer jobs.

Make no mistake, the same would happen on federal lands under the original version of the BLM rule. A recent analysis by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) finds that 40 percent of wells on federal lands could be shut in permanently because they would become uneconomical to continue operating as a result of that rule. 

The AP correctly notes that it’s the “lack of gas-gathering and processing facilities in between that's the problem” in North Dakota. The same can be said for federal lands, which has a backlog of right-of-way applications to build pipelines and other infrastructure that would allow drilling operations to reduce venting and flaring even more.

In short, infrastructure is the answer, not punitive regulations. Although the Trump administration has been derided as anti-environment by critics and the press, its recent infrastructure plan included measures to speed up permitting for pipelines on federal lands. Ironically, the same groups who have a stated goal of reducing methane emissions have also been the loudest critics of this proposal, which would actually help facilitate the efficient transport of otherwise flared gas.

This is where the motivation behind “methane” advocacy comes into clearer view. Critics of the industry know that imposing regulations will increase costs for oil and natural gas producers. That they are simultaneously opposing the very pipelines that would efficiently carry natural gas to consumers suggests this is indeed part of a broader “Keep it in the ground” strategy. It has little to nothing to do with protecting taxpayers, or even the climate.

The data are clear: We are keeping methane in check even as we become a global energy superpower. You would expect “environmentalists” to celebrate this progress; the fact that they are instead calling for more regulation is a reminder that reducing methane isn’t really their goal. 

Seth Whitehead is team lead for Energy In Depth, a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.