EPA’s proposed regulations on methane might be a solution in search of a problem

This week, EID contributed to a discussion on OurEnergyPolicy.org responding specifically to a post by Dr. Robert Howarth on methane regulations.  The full discussion and EID’s comments can be found here.


Based on publicly available data, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed regulations on methane might be a solution in search of a problem.

That’s largely evident in EPA’s latest draft Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which shows methane emissions from natural gas production have fallen by 35 percent since 2007.  In about that same time frame (since 2008) U.S. shale gas production increased by 400 percent.  EPA also added that this dramatic decline in methane emissions is due to “increased voluntary reductions” by producers who are implementing the newest technologies.

U.S. oil production has also skyrocketed in recent years, increasing by 39 percent between 2009 and 2013 – far outpacing the rate of growth of methane emissions over the same period. It’s worth noting that this growth in oil production has catapulted the United States into becoming the second largest oil producer in the world, and by some projections, we will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the top producer worldwide.

Anti-fracking activists have long tried to claim that methane emissions during production are astronomical and far above what EPA has estimated, but the facts show otherwise.  Methane emissions from both natural gas and petroleum systems in the United States are only a mere 0.43 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Just a few weeks ago, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report, which found that methane leakage rates from three major shale developing regions – the Haynesville shale region in Texas/northwestern Louisiana, the Fayetteville shale region in Arkansas, and the northeastern Pennsylvania portion of the Marcellus shale – are in line with EPA’s estimates at 1.1 percent of production.  These leakage rates are well below the threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits.  Importantly, as the study also states, the areas of study collectively represent over half of the United States’ total shale gas production.

A study published late last year by researchers at the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) finds that methane emissions from the upstream portion of the supply chain are only 0.38 percent of production. That’s about 10 percent lower than what the same research team found in a study released in September 2013 – and very much in line with EPA’s estimates.

Reports from MIT, the University of Marylandmultiple reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon and even Cornell University have found methane leakage rates that are far below what activists have claimed.   Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in its latest climate assessment that “the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply…is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”

Thus, it’s fitting that EPA administrator Gina McCarthy recently said, “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has also said, “About half of that progress we have made [on greenhouse gas emissions] is from the natural-gas boom.”  University of California-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller put it best when he said, “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”

EPA can either play into the extreme demands of anti-fracking activists, whose goal is to shut down development altogether, or it can focus its efforts on cost-effective regulatory steps that would provide even further reductions.  The former approach would drive up the cost to operate and may actually reverse the amazing progress already underway. The latter approach will enhance the production of American oil and natural gas, while allowing the clear environmental progress we’ve made in recent years to continue.

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