The oil and gas industry, regulators and scientists are exploring better ways of monitoring and addressing methane emissions, as new U.S. regulations may be coming soon, according to speakers in a Sept. 13 webinar.
In January, the Biden administration instructed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider new regulations for methane emission guidelines. Webinar participants said new technologies and studies of how, where and how much methane is being emitted can help guide this policy and future efforts to mitigate the powerful greenhouse gas.
The event was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (AAAS EPI Center). The EPI Center synthesizes scientific evidence on key societal issues, including methane emissions mitigation , to aid policy-making decisions at federal, state and local levels of government. The webinar was moderated by former AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow Zachary Valdez, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Sarah Solomon, the EPI Center's project lead on methane emissions, said the oil and gas industry contribute 30% of global methane emissions, and recent research has found that the volume of methane emitted by the industry has been significantly underestimated in the United States. Methane traps more radiation than carbon dioxide and breaks down in the atmosphere much faster, so reducing methane emissions would have a swift and significant effect on climate warming.
The oil and gas industry emits methane in three main ways: leaks, vents and flaring, said Arvind Ravikumar, a research associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin. While leaks are unintentional emissions, vents are controlled releases of methane — often for safety reasons — and flaring is the controlled combustion of the gas.
"A majority of the methane emissions that we know come from a very small number of emitters. We call them super-emitters," Ravikumar explained. Out of 100 leaks in an oilfield, the top five highest emitters are "likely to be responsible for over half of the total methane emissions," he said.
One of the difficulties in regulating methane emissions, Ravikumar noted, is that they differ substantially over time and in different geological basins.
The International Energy Agency estimates that worldwide, the oil and gas industry can achieve a 75% reduction in methane emissions using technologies available today — two-thirds of it at no net cost. The industry uses a variety of technologies to detect leaks and to manage vents and flares, from optical gas imaging cameras to drone flyovers, said Howard Dieter, the vice president of environmental, health and safety at Jonah Energy LLC.
This summer, Jonah Energy became the first U.S. oil and gas producer to submit methane emissions data to the United Nations-sponsored Oil and Gas Methane Partnership (OGMP). The company's customers on the U.S. West Coast and Pacific Northwest, Dieter said, "are demanding that we look at methane emissions and ultimately CO2-equivalent emissions of our operations to provide the cleanest fuel supply that we possibly can."
New technologies could improve measurements and detection of methane emissions, but for regulators like Uduak-Joe Ntuk, oil and gas supervisor for California Geologic Energy Management Division, constrained resources and budgets mean that state agencies must use "what is most affordable and what is the most mature technology." California is one of the few states to regulate existing sources of methane as well as new sources.
Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate & Energy Program at Duke University, offered a legal perspective on the technologies and state-of-the-art research on methane emissions at the webinar. Federal regulators would benefit from knowing more about total methane emissions and their distribution to develop guidelines, she agreed, but cautioned against waiting for "perfect information."
"I think ultimately we want to move to this place where all of us — regulators, policymakers, industry — are confident in our estimations of emissions leaving particular facilities such that environmental regulators can set an environmental target and the engineers at the companies can figure out the best way to meet that target," said Konschnik.
"Significant reductions in methane emissions are possible very quickly, but it will require collaboration," Solomon said. "Accurate measurements and reporting lead to more effective regulation, which in turn incentivizes the development and implementation of better methane mitigation technologies."
The webinar's 87 attendees included congressional staff, state or local agencies representing 15 states, and five reporters.