Reducing methane emissions with minimal govt. input

Is it possible to have “near zero” methane emissions from oil and natural gas production operations and, at the same time, low-cost energy? Fortunately for Ohioans and shale-gas producers in Ohio the answer is yes. Not just any climate policy will achieve these twin goals, however. It will take one that relies on markets and not just on heavy-handed environmental regulation.

For Ohio, a lot is at stake, and it’s not only the shale industry that potentially would implode if the methane issue is not resolved. Currently, 12 gas-fired power plants are under construction in the state, and more are expected to be built. The use of natural gas for household heating, power generation, and manufacturing is increasing. Heavy-handed regulation of methane emissions would discourage gas production, raise gas prices because costs would have to be passed on to consumers, and weaken efforts to reduce Ohio’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation. In recent years, we have seen a steady decline in investment in oil and gas production on Federal and Indian lands in the Western states, due in large part to the burden of government regulations.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that scientists say is responsible for about a quarter of the global warming we’re experiencing today, Methane is far more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, but it does not stay in the atmosphere as long. The traditional approach to reducing methane in the atmosphere has been to adopt government regulations aimed at restricting methane emissions from oil and gas production operations.

Under the Obama Administration, the Interior Department forced energy companies to capture methane that would normally be burned off or “flared” at existing drilling sites on public lands, whether doing so was economic or not. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its own set of regulations aimed at curbing methane emissions from new oil and gas wells.

But these regulations were redundant and essentially unnecessary because emissions were already falling thanks to internal policies already adopted by U.S. companies, even as America assumed the lead in global oil and gas production. Voluntary efforts by oil and gas companies to curb emissions and reduce flaring are making a difference, thanks to better management and investment in new emission-control technologies employed in many areas of production operations.

Last year, as part of an Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, 10 leading international oil and gas companies – including Shell, BP and Saudi Aramco – pledged to support a goal of achieving “near zero” methane emissions, with commitments to conduct “systematic monitoring” of production and processing facilities and reduce flaring. Methane, after all, is the primary constituent of natural gas, and instead of being burned off, it can be transported by pipeline, if available, to a processing facility and sold on the gas market. Companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron are participating in the drive to stem methane releases, and many other companies are following suit.

Studies have determined that 90 percent of U.S. emissions come from a small number of sources that leak large amounts of methane. Detecting and managing these big emitters offers the potential for more major reductions.

Rather than embrace draconian mandates, the new Administration is focusing on expanding free-market initiatives to encourage methane emissions reduction. The Interior Department has wisely scrapped its methane regulations, and the EPA has held off implementing its rules while the agency reconsiders the need for federal action.

Congress needs to address the destructive effects of government command-and-control regulation too. It should eliminate funding for enforcement of unwarranted methane emission rules. The oil and gas industry is already working to reduce emissions and will continue to do so with minimal government interference.

Moving forward, the government should focus spending on research and development of targeted technologies that boost oil and gas productivity while preventing the escape of methane into the atmosphere. A market-based approach will keep costs reasonable for those companies that would otherwise face prohibitively high costs for reducing their emissions and who tend to dig in their heels to oppose any action. Such a standoff polarizes the debate and gets in the way of methane emissions reduction.

Relying on markets to reduce methane emissions with minimal government intervention is the best policy and offers the greatest chance of success. It can achieve significant improvements in reducing methane emissions while keeping energy costs affordable for consumers and manufacturers alike.

Dr. Robert W. Chase, P.E., is an emeritus professor of Marietta College.