Methane emissions continue to drop

Methane emissions continue to drop
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In the oil and natural gas industry, you don’t get very far without making use of valuable resources rather than treating them as waste. So, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that methane emissions in the United States have dropped 15 percent since 1990 even as natural gas production increased more than 50 percent over that same period. This decline is significant, because methane is the primary component of natural gas.

Methane is also a greenhouse gas that’s more potent than carbon dioxide. Reducing methane emissions, which account for 10 percent of total greenhouse emissions, is thereby useful.

Instead of venting methane into the atmosphere from oil wells, as has usually been done, oil and gas companies now capture the gas and ship it by pipeline to commercial markets for use as a fuel. A number of major companies, including Shell, Exxon, Chevron and BP, have set a goal of reducing methane emissions by a fifth by 2025. The group is investing in new technology, including satellite imagery, to help measure and detect methane leaks.

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And the Environmental Partnership, a collaboration of 65 of the nation’s oil and gas producers, is committed to capturing as much methane as possible from wells, natural gas pipelines, compressors and other equipment. 

Consequently, there’s no need for overlapping government regulations to cut methane emissions, despite what environmental groups claim. The Trump administration recently proposed changes to an Obama-era methane rule that would streamline implementation and reduce duplicative EPA and state requirements.

EPA’s proposed amendments to the 2016 New Source Performance Standards rule would effectively reduce air pollution from volatile organic compounds, along with methane emissions. This co-benefit allows for innovation and technological advancements that help environmental performance.

The regulatory change means that by 2023, nearly 90 percent of all U.S. oil and gas production will be regulated under the New Source Performance Standard, jumping to 98 percent by 2033.

Not only has the oil and gas industry made impressive progress in reducing methane emissions, but it’s also reduced carbon emissions to 25-year lows. The shift from coal to natural gas in electricity generation has been the primary reason for carbon mitigation. In fact, the ramp up in gas production is the main reason why U.S. carbon emissions have been falling faster than any other country.

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At the same time, the industry has succeeded in elevating the U.S. to No. 1 in the world in oil and gas production. What’s more, the U.S. has the lowest natural gas prices in more than 20 years.

Importantly, U.S. methane emissions have dropped even as energy companies produce more natural gas. For example, in the Permian Basin, which covers large parts of Texas and New Mexico, production surged 100 percent between 2011 and 2017, but methane emissions relative to production fell nearly 40 percent.

In the Appalachia Basin, which extends from Alabama to Maine and includes the Marcellus shale, methane emissions are down 70 percent. Gas production has increased a remarkable 384 percent, supplying the energy that powers our nation’s economy.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former EPA assistant administrator with national responsibility for Superfund and other waste programs. Currently, he is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Atlanta.