Feds To Rein in Methane Emissions on Federally-Regulated Lands

ON 12/09/2022 AT 08:47 PM

The Biden-Harris regime announced proposed new rules this week that would limit methane leaks and flaring for drilling on federal and Tribal lands. While it will help, the proposal is far too timid to make much of a difference.

Methane Flaring

Methane flaring at a fuel well. Careless release of excess methane into the atmosphere is a major contributor to ongoing emissions of this especially dangerous greenhouse gas. Photo: haymarketrebel, CC

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, emissions of methane (more commonly known as natural gas) made up an estimated 11% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States in 2020, measured by metric tons of output. It is dwarfed by outputs of carbon dioxide, which made up 79% of all such emissions that year.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), which makes its way into the atmosphere via the burning of fossil fuels, decomposition of organic materials such as solid waste and plant matter, forest fires, and chemical reactions such as in the production of cement, gets most of the headlines as the primary “bad actor” in causing the climate crisis. It does so precisely because there is simply so much more of it being pumped into the atmosphere where infrared energy from the sun passes through but then gets trapped close to the earth’s surface, causing it and everything on it to heat up.

Methane emissions are produced during the production of coal, natural gas, and oil; in agriculture and raising of livestock for food; municipal solid waste decay; during wastewater treatment; and more recently as permafrost materials on land and methane hydrate which had previously trapped methane from organic decomposition for millennia are now melting as global temperatures have soared over the last half-century.  And while methane emissions in the United States represent less than one-seventh of the total mass of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, they have a heat-trapping power of approximately 80 times that of CO2 for for the first twenty years after initial release. It is estimated that as much as 25% of global warming is due to increased methane levels.

That heat-trapping power differential is part of why multiple states in the United States have begun to enact legislation limited the future use of natural gas in new homes being built. It is also why there has been a renewed focus on preventing and fixing leaks in orphaned wells and in natural gas drilling and pipelines in the United States in recent years.

Methane was also in the spotlight recently after it was revealed recently that atmospheric concentrations of the gas made their biggest jump ever in a single year, in 2021.

That is behind why on November 28, the Department of the Interior released a tougher methane emissions reduction plan to control natural gas waste from drilling and transport on federal and Tribal lands. Among the components of the new rule the agency is proposing are:

Formalized Leak Detection Plans and Systems for all fossil fuel operations on federal lands and leases on Tribal Property.

Waste Methane Minimization. Any applicant being considered for future natural gas leases will now be required in advanced to prove they have available infrastructure to handle the incremental natural gas produced by the new lease, and to have the equipment necessary to minimize flaring of the associated gas.

Imposition of Monthly Limits Allowed on Flaring. The new proposal still allows what the government refers to as a certain amount of “royalty-free” flaring that is considered a normal — though problematic — by-product of natural gas production. The new rule will establish formal maximum volume as well as time limits for methane lost by flaring in excess of those royalty-free targets.

Required New Technology Upgrades. The new plan will require companies extracting methane on federal and Tribal lands to implement “the use of “low bleed” pneumatic equipment as well as vapor recovery for oil storage tanks, where economically feasible”.

Though precise estimates of how much in the way of methane emissions might be preserved subject to this new rule are only approximate, the Department of the Interior noted in their announcement that venting and flaring of methane from the lands under control of the government averaged approximately 44.2 billion cubic feet per year between 2010 and 2020. That compares to a parallel estimate by the World Bank that total methane emissions from oil and gas companies in the U.S. flared a total of 309 billion cubic feet in 2020 from all properties, both private and on lands regulated by the federal government. All of that methane could have been captured and used instead of simply vented to the atmsophere or flared off.

What that means is that even if somehow the new rules were to prevent 100% of all methane flaring losses from oil and gas companies on lands the government can fully regulate, that would still only amount to just 14% of the total of all methane emissions produced by the oil and gas industry. The reality is that only a small fraction of the total methane losses from flaring on federally-regulated territory would actually be stopped as a result of the new rule. Even assuming the rules would prevent as much as 30% of the 44.2 billion cubic feet per year from reaching the atmosphere, that then converts to just 4.2% of the total methane emissions output from the entire oil and gas industry. And of course the new rules would only be effective if enforced and that is highly unlikely.

The Interior Department says that by setting flaring targets more tightly, it can recover royalty fees of $39.8 million a year from excess emissions, assuming the new rule goes into effect.

What this all means is that even with the new rule going into effect, which would happen beginning 60 days from now if no major objections are raised, both the amount of methane emissions it will save and the amount of money to be made from royalties on methane emissions excesses are more or less meaningless.

During the disastrous UN COP27 climate change conference in Egypt which concluded recently, dementia-ridden Joe Biden did go on record with recommendations to implement remote satellite monitoring of so-called "super emitter" methane leaks for use in the United States and beyond, which is already being done by NASA. But even that will not do much more than put producers on notice about specific leaks at their sites, with little enforcement capability to do much about it and no long term plan to phase out the use of methane either.

Something far more drastic than plans like the just-announced Department of Interior initiative described above and the remote monitoring idea will be needed before the government can expect to make even the smallest dent in atmospheric methane emissions produced by the U.S. oil and gas industry. Other oil & gas producing nations are also doing mostly nothing about methane emissions. 

For those who wonder where this will all lead, the following video is worth watching: