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2018-12-05 / Blogs

EPA's methane 'roll back' will actually help the environment

By Drew Johnson

(12/06/18) When the Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposal last month to ease Obama-era restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, green activists turned bright red with anger. 

Unfortunately, their biggest worry seems to be the effect the proposed methane change will have on Obama's legacy, not the environment. If they were actually interested in keeping the earth green, environmentalists would be championing the EPA's proposal, not protesting it. 

Why? Because the amended rule would at last give oil and gas firms adequate time to prevent methane leaks via thorough inspections and repairs.  

Methane is a greenhouse gas released from oil and gas equipment -- like tanks, wells, and pipelines -- during fossil fuel production and transportation. Current methane rules require oil and gas firms to test wells for methane leaks every six months and fix detected leaks within 30 days. The EPA's proposal would require annual inspections and allow 60 days for repairs. 

Green activists were quick to accuse the EPA of "gutting" environmental regulations. But the revised rule simply accommodates the physical realities of energy production. The proposal would give firms the time they need to adequately repair their infrastructure and avoid future leaks, rather than rushing a repair through to meet an arbitrary deadline. The extra time is especially important for facilities in remote locations. 

Even without government intervention, energy companies would be working to reduce methane leakage. When properly captured, methane is a marketable commodity. Leaks are not only a potential liability but also a waste of a valuable product. Telling the energy industry to reduce methane leaks is like telling a farmer not to throw out his harvest -- it's unnecessary.

In fact, late last year, 26 oil and gas producers formed the Environmental Partnership, a voluntary program to reduce emissions by monitoring and repairing leaks with the latest technology. The consortium is replacing or retrofitting outdated infrastructure with state-of-the art components and removing liquids that inhibit the flow of natural gas in aging wells. Since its founding, the group has grown to 43 members.  

And just last month, Exxon, Shell, Aramco, and 10 other energy companies pledged to reduce their methane emissions to less than .25 percent of their total natural gas production by 2025.  

These industry efforts are working. Between 1990 and last year, a period during which natural gas production rose 50 percent, methane emissions fell 19 percent. And despite its status as the top oil and natural gas producer in the world, America's energy-related methane emissions represent only about 10 percent of the global total.  

Most of that progress can be attributed to new energy industry technology. "The decrease in production emissions is due to increased voluntary reductions, from activities such as replacing high bleed pneumatic devices, regulatory reductions, and the increased use of plunger lifts for liquids unloading," according to an EPA analysis conducted during the Obama administration.

Easing regulations surrounding natural gas production will help lower emissions of other harmful gases as well. Advanced hydraulic fracturing techniques have yielded an abundant domestic supply of natural gas, which burns twice as clean as coal. We have America's adoption of natural gas to thank for a 25-year low in carbon dioxide emissions. 

Flexible, incentive-based and voluntary initiatives like the Environmental Partnership lead to real solutions in the real world; burdensome regulations, by contrast, only compound problems. 

Despite the green movement's reactionary rhetoric, the EPA's methane proposal will be a boon for the environment. 

NOTE: Drew Johnson is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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