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Even with new EPA methane rules, emissions from energy sector will decline

Even with new EPA methane rules, emissions from energy sector will decline
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After a two-year review, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just adopted new rules that modify federal regulations for methane emissions. Although most media coverage has referred to these changes as a “rollback” of Obama-era climate policies, in fact the new rules serve mainly to eliminate duplicative — and expensive — federal regulatory oversight of the oil and gas industry. 

Specifically, the rules remove methane-specific emission limits for oil and gas wells completed since 2016 while reducing federal monitoring of large pipelines, storage sites and other parts of the transmission system. Compressor stations that have been inspected quarterly for methane leaks by the EPA will be inspected semiannually.  

Not surprisingly, environmental groups are predicting a climate Armageddon as a result of the EPA’s actions and vowing to challenge the changes in court. Peter Zalzal, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, calls the new rules “a deeply misguided action” that “is manifestly inconsistent with the agency’s legal obligations, and with the science that shows methane is a dangerous pollutant.” 

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Without question, methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas with 25 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide. The EPA acknowledges this fact by imposing strict limits on ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that mitigate most methane emissions as well. What is more, regulatory agencies in oil and gas producing states also impose strict limits on fugitive methane.

The energy industry gets a bad rap when it comes to methane. In fact, methane releases attributed to oil and gas production, processing and distribution account for less than 3 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and are virtually unchanged from 10 years ago, even though oil and gas production has doubled. Fugitive methane from natural gas systems is 24 percent lower today than in 2005. And a 2016 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that America’s energy sector is a minor contributor to global warming — agriculture, landfills and wetlands are the main offenders.

At the same time, because methane — the principal component of natural gas — has economic value, the industry has a strong incentive to capture it. Among other initiatives, more than 80 of the nation’s oil and gas producers have formed an Environmental Partnership committed to finding and fixing methane leaks that can reduce emissions by up to 60 percent. So far, participating companies have conducted more than 184,000 inspections and reported a leak rate of less than 1 percent. 

Gas flaring in the U.S. has dropped 70 percent over the past year, another indication that methane emissions are being addressed by industry. This decline wasn’t driven by federal or state regulations, or the COVID-19 economy, but rather by investors demanding greater capital discipline and improved environmental outcomes.

While the energy industry is making great strides in tackling methane, the farm sector — a larger source of methane than oil and gas systems — is getting a free ride. Domestic livestock, such as cattle, swine, sheep and goats, produce methane as part of their normal digestive process.  Additional methane is released when manure is stored or managed in lagoons or holding tanks.  According to the EPA, when livestock and manure are combined, the agricultural sector is by far the largest source of methane emissions in America, and its discharges have been rising in recent years.

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Unlike the energy sector, the beef and dairy industries have been extremely resourceful at dissociating themselves from the climate change debate. For example, last year a bill was introduced in the California legislature that would have given public schools a rebate for increasing the number of plant-based meals they serve. The original bill contained language that said beef and dairy production were boosting greenhouse gases, and it also had the word “climate” in the title. The state’s powerful beef and dairy industries opposed the bill, largely because of the explicit connections it made between livestock production and climate change, and this language was removed. The bill passed in the state Assembly but didn’t come up for a vote in the state Senate.

In Maryland last year, the state’s Green Purchasing Committee, an interagency government group charged with “promoting environmentally preferable purchasing” by state agencies, launched the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee to study which foods released higher amounts of greenhouse gases. After the group produced a list of carbon-intensive foods, which included beef and dairy, the executive vice president of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Beef Association called it a “hit list” and asked the governor to disband the committee. The following month, it was dissolved.

Simple measures such as covering manure lagoons and altering cattle diets to reduce belching could help reduce methane from farming and ranching. “There’s a lot policymakers and companies can do to cut [agricultural] methane emissions … but we aren’t doing them,” says Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project.

To date, the oil and gas industry has borne the onus of reducing methane and other greenhouse gases. It’s now time for the agricultural sector, landfill operators, and other emitters of methane to step up and do their part.

Bernard L. Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.