Oil and gas companies could play a major role in slashing emissions of methane, and Texas, the nation’s top energy producer, could help lead the way, environmental advocates say.
The industry could curb projected emissions by as much as 40 percent in the U.S. by 2018 through actions that could save it money in the long run, according to a report released this week by the Environmental Defense Fund.
But it is unlikely that Texas environmental regulators will embrace the message. And industry representatives disagree about the urgency of curbing methane emissions at a time when cows — through their flatulence — are actually a larger emitter.
Power plants that burn natural gas spew far less carbon dioxide than traditional coal-fired plants, helping to reduce impacts on the climate. But extracting oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide.
The new report suggested several ways for drillers to curb those releases, such as by finding and repairing pipeline leaks, replacing compressor equipment and capturing the gas before it escapes. Those changes would cost the industry some $2.2 billion up front but would yield savings in the long run as companies capture and reuse the stray methane, the study said.
“There are balanced, real solutions available that can make natural gas a less risky fuel source,” said Mark Brownstein, an energy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Brownstein said that drillers could achieve some of the goals through voluntary actions that some companies have already taken, but that state regulations would also be important.
His group and others have hailed rules recently implemented in Colorado, another hotbed of drilling. That state now strictly regulates greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas extraction, and if Texas were to follow suit, the impact on emissions would be much larger.
“What happens in Texas can have a great deal of influence in what can happen in the states and federally,” Brownstein said.
But Texas is unlikely to act soon.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not officially recognize greenhouse gas as a danger to the environment, and the state refused for years to issue federally required greenhouse gas permits to companies that needed them. Last month, the state’s solicitor general, Jonathan Mitchell, argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that the permits are illegal. And the TCEQ's director, Bryan Shaw, has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is caused by humans.
Meanwhile, opinions within Texas' oil and gas industry differ.
Bill Mintz, a spokesman for Apache Corporation, a Houston-based oil and gas producer, called the EDF report “an important contribution to the discussion of cost effective opportunities to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas industry.”
Apache, he said, has already implemented some of the practices mentioned in the report, but “we know there is a lot more work to do, and we encourage all of our industry colleagues engage in the race to minimize methane emissions in the oil and gas business.”
Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said she knew of several drilling companies that are working to reduce methane emissions largely through capture and recovery techniques.
She said her group was still reviewing the new study, but worried that researchers underestimated the cost of regulations and overestimated the benefits.
“We aren’t one of the biggest emitters of methane, but we try to reduce it,” she said. “We do believe that our emissions are dropping.”
Nationally, industry members have widely cited newly released data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggesting that the U.S. is emitting less greenhouse gases overall, and that emissions can be attributed not to oil and gas drilling but to the cattle industry — in other words, cow farts. (For years, experts have worked with cattle farmers to reduce animal emissions through grazing techniques and better nutrition.)
Estimates on exactly how much methane is emitted during fracking vary widely. Last fall, a high-profile study from the University of Texas at Austin measured emissions directly from oil and gas producing wells across the country. The results suggested that environmental rules have already helped to reduce emissions, and that without proper regulation, fracking might cancel out the benefit of natural gas to the health of the climate. But Texas researchers cautioned that the study focused only on the drilling process itself and do not measure pipeline leaks, another source of emissions.
Other scientists have come to very different conclusions, however, when studying the amount of methane in the atmosphere, rather than measuring emissions on the ground.
A peer-reviewed study published late last year by scientists from Harvard University and elsewhere suggests that the federal government has been vastly underestimating methane emissions in the U.S., especially those coming from the south-central portion of the country, where fossil fuel extraction is most prevalent.
The scientists said methane emissions from oil and gas drilling could be underestimated by as much as five times.
Disclosure: At the time of publication, Apache Corporation and the University of Texas at Austin were corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)