Regulation of existing oil and gas wells will begin ahead of EPA regulations for the oil and gas industry. Using the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Administration will begin tightening the regulations on existing oil and gas wells by toughening the standards for operating gas and oil wells on federal land. The new standards will be designed to reduce venting, flaring, and leaks of natural gas, which is primarily methane, from these oil and gas wells. These standards, to be proposed this spring, will address both new and existing oil and gas wells on public lands and will serve as a test run on regulating existing oil and gas wells.
The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will propose natural gas pipeline safety standards in 2015 aimed at reducing leaks and releases from pipelines. The Department of Energy (DOE) will develop and demonstrate more cost-effective technologies to detect and reduce losses from natural gas transmission and distribution systems that is believed to represent over 22% of methane gas losses in the sector. The DOE effort will include efforts to repair leaks and develop the next generation of compressors. According to the EPA the President’s budget will propose $10 million to launch a program at DOE to examine the scope of leaks from gas distribution systems, pipelines and compressor plants to examine their contribution to global warming.
Two years ago Robert B. Jackson, Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke University and Nathan Phillips, associate professor at Boston University Department of Earth and Environment collaborated with Robert Ackley of Gas Safety Inc., and Eric Crosson of Picarro Inc., to perform a study of gas leaks in Boston. They mapped the gas leaks under the city using a new, high-precision methane analyzer. The researchers discovered 3,356 leaks. The leaks were found to be associated with old cast-iron underground pipes, infrastructure that had not been maintained. The team went on to document leaks in Washington DC, but EPA wants to quantify the emissions of the entire wholesale and retail distribution system. In addition to the explosion hazard, methane, the primary ingredient of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas that degrades air quality. Leaks in the United States are reported to contribute to $3 billion of lost and unaccounted for natural gas each year.
The White House set a new target for the U.S. to cut methane emissions in the energy sector by 40% to 45% by 2025, compared with 2012 levels. Methane emissions in the energy sector represent only about 30% of the total. Methane emissions come from diverse sources and sectors of the economy, unevenly dispersed across the nation and not well tracked. That is why the EPA wants to begin to better quantify the emissions. There is little hard data on methane emissions; nonetheless, the estimates below are the best available and the Administration has used them to develop the current methane mitigation plan for the energy sector. You’ll note that the methane emissions from natural gas systems has decreased by about 15% from 2005 to 2012 despite the production of natural gas increasing by about 50% during that time period.
Over the last two hundred and fifty years, the concentration of methane in our atmosphere has increased by 151% to 1.8 parts per million. Methane is the primary component in natural gas, methane is emitted to the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas and because gas is often found alongside petroleum which is often much more valuable, methane is sometimes vented to the atmosphere rather than captured during oil production. Methane is also produced from the decomposition of human and animal waste as well as garbage and is the major component of landfill gas. Methane is also released from the natural biological process of enteric fermentation which is fermentation that takes place in the digestive systems of animals. In particular, ruminant animals that have two stomachs and eat grasses (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels) produce and release methane by “passing gas” from the microbial fermentation that breaks down the grass and hay into soluble products that can be utilized by the animal. To significantly reduce the methane released from enertic fermentation it might be necessary to reduce the cattle and sheep population and the share of the American diet that is beef, lamb and dairy products. Finally, when natural gas and other petroleum products are used as a fuel incomplete combustion releases traces of methane.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane is more than 20-25 times more effective as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. So eventhough it is a much smaller component of the atmosphere, controlling methane emissions is essential to the Administrations plans to address climate change, though unfortunately “addressing” will not stop climate change. If you recall it is the greenhouse effect that is expected to increase the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, methane and the other greenhouse gases. According to climate scientists we have passed the tipping point and there is no stopping the climate trajectory predicted by the models that have been developed to understand and predict the climate of earth. However, detecting and reducing gas leaks are critical not only for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also for improving air quality and consumer safety, and saving consumers money.