“Fugitive” natural gas emissions on the run from the law

A natural gas power plant in Utah. (Photo credit: D. Jolley, Wikipedia)
A natural gas power plant in Utah. (Photo credit: D. Jolley, Wikipedia)

By Samantha Caravello — Aug. 13, 2013 at 12:52pm

Natural gas is being widely lauded as the “bridge fuel” that will allow the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, kick its addiction to foreign oil, and create jobs to boot. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the impacts of natural gas production before getting comfortable with the idea of it as the panacea for our energy problems. We’ve all heard the horror stories of tap water lighting on fire and farm animals reportedly dying from drinking fracking wastewater, but some concerns go even deeper–what if the entire premise of a natural gas-fueled low-carbon future is simply untrue?

Such fears have come to surface recently, as studies like this one conducted by NOAA and University of Colorado scientists have been able use the chemical signatures of air pollution to identify “fugitive” emissions from oil and natural gas emissions as the culprit behind unhealthily high levels of pollution. (A telling anecdote: oil and gas have been identified as the problem behind ozone levels in western plain areas that rival the smog you’d expect in cities like Los Angeles. And a telling video: infrared cameras capture gas leaks that are invisible to the naked eye.)  And ozone precursors are not the only pollutants leaking–methane, a GHG that is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide and the principal component of natural gas, is also escaping at alarming rates.

Addressing these unreported emissions is critical to responsibly planning our country’s transition to a clean energy future: scientists estimate that if methane leakage from natural gas well sites exceeds 3.2 percent, gas becomes a worse contributor to global warming than coal. Given that studies are now estimating leakage rates of 2.3 percent to 17 percent in some areas, we may have a problem.

But that’s why we have the Clean Air Act, right? Well (as you can probably already surmise), there are some problems with that. There is currently no appropriate regulatory framework for addressing fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production (although EPA has taken steps to address the release of ozone precursors from this sector). Title V of the Clean Air Act (CAA) requires major stationary sources to obtain a permit pre-construction, which specifies the amount of each pollutant the source is allowed to emit, but methane leaks from natural gas production are from smaller sources–individual wells, storage tanks, etc.–that do not meet the requirements to be regulated as major sources.[1]  A potential solution to this problem is aggregating all of the wells, but courts have not taken kindly to the EPA’s attempts to do so, and given our current political climate, it seems unlikely to expect a pro-aggregation ruling in the near future.  EPA does have authority to regulate emissions from oil and gas wells through a different portion of the CAA, the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) program, and it has taken some action to do so through its ozone rule.  However, EPA has not yet set an NSPS for methane, which would be a massive undertaking.

It’s funny–one would think that losing their product at a rate that may enter double digits would be contrary to good business principles. But natural gas is so plentiful and in such high demand that it seems such logic doesn’t apply here. Hopefully studies like the one discussed above will draw public and government attention and outrage to the issue before it’s too late.

[1] Lowrey, Jessica L. Sewing Up the Regulatory Hole: Preventing Winter Ozone in Utah’s Uintah Basin. 3 Seattle Journal of Envt’l Law 295, 304–305 (2013).