The US oil patch is the Wild West. We need regulation to control the sector’s methane emissions

A new analysis of methane pollution reveals dramatic variation between different oil and gas companies, underscoring the need for clear standards.

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Sarah Smith is director of the super pollutants program at Clean Air Task Force. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

Scrutiny of the U.S. oil and gas sector has never been more intense. A majority of ExxonMobil’s shareholders recently voted to install three new board members to turn around the company’s poor performance on climate change. The same day, shareholders at Chevron approved a resolution to cut emissions caused by the consumption of its products. And a Dutch court ruled Shell was contributing to climate change and ordered it to reduce its carbon emissions.

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A new study from Clean Air Task Force and Ceres finds that the methane emissions and emissions intensity of U.S. oil and gas firms vary wildly from company to company, underscoring the clear need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a regulatory floor for the industry.

Methane is a harmful super pollutant that’s more than 80 times more potent as a global warming gas than carbon pollution over the first 20 years of its presence in the atmosphere. It’s responsible for roughly one-quarter of the climate warming we see today — and its levels in our atmosphere are surging. Reining in our global methane emissions is a core imperative of tackling climate change and represents one of the clearest opportunities we have to make an immediate impact.

A recent assessment from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition found that tackling methane is the largest lever we can pull to reduce global warming in the next 20 years — and it can be done at little to no cost. By reducing global emissions 45% by 2040, the assessment found, we can avoid nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius in global warming while preventing 255,000 deaths, 26 million tons of crop losses, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits and 73 billion lost work hours due to heat exposure.

Cutting methane emissions will take different forms in different regions. In the U.S., significantly reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is the most important task. The sector accounts for the lion’s share of U.S. methane emissions. What’s more, as the new CATF and Ceres report shows, there is a great deal of variability around which companies are emitting the most. Indeed, some smaller companies have acquired the leakiest” assets from the largest companies.

While the 195 smallest producers included in the analysis account for just 9% of production, they’re responsible for 22% of total reported emissions. Large producers, however, are still responsible for massive amounts of emissions. The top seven producers in the U.S. oil and gas industry alone accounted for one-quarter of the sector’s total reported greenhouse gas emissions.

ExxonMobil, the highest-producing company, reported emission levels twice as high as those of the second-most-producing company, despite producing just 20% more oil and gas. The comparatively small Hilcorp Energy had the highest reported methane emissions in the country, despite ranking as the 19th-largest oil and gas producer. Among the top 30 producers, Hilcorp’s methane emissions intensity was almost six times the national average. Other notable emitters among the top 30 producers include Marathon Oil and Whiting Petroleum, which had GHG intensities 3.6 times and 2.7 times greater than the average top-30 producing company, respectively.

The report also shows that certain classes of production equipment are responsible for large shares of total emissions and that companies that use them intensively have correspondingly high emissions intensities. Pneumatic controllers were responsible for 54% of reported methane emissions, and flaring was responsible for 41% of reported carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s important to note that this analysis reflects only reported emissions. As hours and hours of optical gas imaging footage have suggested, it is likely that companies are emitting much more methane than they’re reporting. This level of variation and opacity is due in part to poor oversight and enforcement by regulators. It’s the Wild West out there — because that’s what the current regulatory framework allows.

In order to rein in methane emissions, we need a clear regulatory floor that mandates the use of best practices across the board to reduce leaks and stop flaring. CATF has run the numbers and found that we can reduce methane from the sector by 65% with existing technology, and it can be done at relatively little (and in some cases no) cost to the industry.

Investors, courts and scientists have pinpointed the need to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. It’s time the EPA does so too.

(Article image courtesy of Patrick Hendry)

Sarah Smith is the Program Director, Super Pollutants at Clean Air Task Force, where she leads the organization’s work focused on minimizing emissions of potent super pollutants.