EPA Finds Oil and Gas Industries Are Spewing More Methane Than Thought

Environmental groups say the data shows stronger action needs to be taken to reduce emissions.
(Photo: Frans Lanting/Getty Images)
Apr 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The oil and natural gas industries are putting cows out to pasture when it comes to emitting methane.

A new report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency shows that gas and oil companies account for a third of the nation’s methane emissions, surpassing the livestock industry, which had previously been tagged as the largest source of emissions.

New methods of calculating methane emissions in the gas and oil fields are mostly responsible for the new figures, the EPA said in statement Friday, when it published a revised greenhouse gas inventory.

The new estimates take into account methane emissions from various points along natural gas and oil production lines—from storage fields to home stoves—that previously were not measured. The updated figures show methane emissions from the industry in 2013 were actually 240.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, up from the original estimate of 177.7 million metric tons—a 35 percent increase.

The findings fall in line with recent research conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund, which has spent the last four years reviewing the natural gas industry supply chain.

“Data gathered in the field shows that the oil and gas methane problem is much larger than government or industry was telling us, and today EPA is rightly making a necessary set of corrections,” Mark Brownstein, vice president of the EDF’s Climate and Energy Program, said in a statement.

In the EDF’s analysis, the oil and natural gas sector’s methane emissions were 34 percent higher in 2014 compared with the EPA’s previous estimates for 2013, with the industry pumping more than 9.8 million metric tons of pollution into the atmosphere each year.

David Lyon, an EDF scientist based in Austin, Texas, called the EPA’s updated numbers a step in the right direction in obtaining accurate data on the industry’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. But such estimates, he said, still don’t take into account the impact of large-scale leaks, such as the 112-day natural gas well rupture at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Southern California. That leak doubled the rate of emissions for the entire Los Angeles Basin.

RELATED: Los Angeles Natural Gas Leak Was the Largest Ever in the U.S.

“They still are underestimating emissions by failing to fully account for super-emitters—relatively infrequent, high emission sites that contribute a large portion of total emissions,” Lyon said in an email. “EPA should continue to update the inventory with best available data including the role of super-emitters.”

The findings call into question oil and gas companies’ position that stricter regulations are not necessary, based on the industry’s 15 percent decrease in emissions since 1990.

“EPA has made a significant change in its inventory methodology, and we believe it is seriously flawed,” Kyle Isakower, an executive at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. “Even as oil and natural gas production has risen dramatically, we believe methane emissions from production are falling as shown by previous EPA greenhouse gas inventories.”

Lyon said that while the oil and gas industry had reported a decrease in methane emissions compared with 1990 levels, emissions totals have steadily increased since 2010.

Overall, greenhouse gas emissions increased 1 percent from 2013 to 2014, owing to increasing fuel demand for residential and commercial heating, growing demand in the transportation sector, and an uptick in manufacturing. Methane only accounts for a fraction of the country’s greenhouse gasses. Still, the gas is 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, making methane reduction a centerpiece of President Obama’s proposed plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA launched a voluntary methane emissions reduction program in March, with 41 oil and gas companies pledging to reduce their emissions levels by replacing older gas lines and equipment and submitting annual emissions data directly to the agency.

“The voluntary Methane Challenge program is one important part of our overarching strategy to reduce methane emissions, and complements regulatory efforts that will help the United States meet the Obama administration’s goal of reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2025,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

“Major reductions in methane pollution are possible with some simple technologies and systematic efforts to find and fix leaks,” Brownstein said. “Some companies are already going in the right direction. National standards are needed to ensure that all companies play by the same set of rules.”