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Obama's Methane Plan: Why It Matters for Texas

On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced another major plan to combat climate change that aims to slash emissions of methane gas in the next decade by almost a half. Here’s why that’s a big deal for Texas.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
Workers with Bee Cave Drilling install a jackhammer bit on the drilling rig while putting in a water well on a private lot in Spicewood, Texas on February 6, 2012.

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced another major plan to combat climate change. This time, it's targeting the oil and gas sector in a bid to slash emissions of methane gas — a key contributor to global warming — by almost 50 percent in the next decade. Methane, a primary component of natural gas, often leaks during oil and gas drilling.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to release specifics on the proposal this summer, but it's certain to have major implications for Texas, the country's energy leader.

Here’s why:

Methane is a big contributor to global warming. So far, most U.S. efforts to fight climate change have focused on carbon dioxide, which accounts for the vast majority of greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. But methane is much better at trapping heat. One pound of methane has more than 20 times the impact on global warming than one pound of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, scientists estimate.

Texas spews a lot of methane. Just as Texas leads the country in overall greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also a particularly huge source for this potent warming gas. That’s in part because two major methane-emitting activities – agriculture and oil and gas drilling – are huge here. The state pumps about a third of the country's oil and a quarter of its natural gas.

Methane can escape into the atmosphere during oil and gas extraction, wasting energy — and money. The gas has been found to leak during much of the oil and gas drilling process — including in wells that are fracked. Operators can prevent those releases by repairing pipeline leaks, replacing compressor equipment and capturing the gas before it escapes, but that could cost billions of dollars across the industry.

Still, environmental groups argue it would save money in the long term because operators could sell the saved gas as fuel, rather than wasting it. A White House fact sheet says Obama’s plan would save up to 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2025, enough to heat more than 2 million homes for a year. 

Nobody agrees on how much methane the U.S. and Texas emits, particularly from drilling. The EPA estimates that methane accounts for 9 to 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but a much-cited 2013 study suggests that could be a huge underestimation. Researchers including a University of Texas group last year concluded that the reality could be somewhere in between, at least when it comes to oil and gas drilling. Environmental and industry groups often misinterpret those studies or cherry-pick information for political gain.

Plus, the agriculture sector — through cow farts and burps (yes, you read that right), for instance — emits lots of methane too, leading to widespread mocking of methane regulation by industry groups and Republican officials. (The U.S. government has researched ways to limit those emissions, although it doesn’t appear to be part of this proposal.)

Still, many believe Texas could be a leader in methane reduction. A report from the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, found that the industry could slash its own methane emissions as much as 40 percent by 2018 and save money in the long term.

Industry groups also point to their progress in curbing the gas — though most say they should do it without extra governmental regulations. “Clearly, oil and natural gas industry investments to develop technologies and equipment to reduce methane emissions are working,” Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said Wednesday in a statement.

Don’t expect Texas to embrace the proposal. It’s no secret that the state’s Republican leadership doesn’t get along with the EPA. And Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity contributes to climate change. Texas officials have blasted other rules in the works to fight climate change by targeting coal-burning power plants. New federal methane rules could trigger another fight.

"The EPA’s rules are part of the President’s war on fossil fuels," Railroad Commissioner David Porter said in a statement. "I am adamantly opposed to any measure that raises the cost of consumer necessities, like utility and energy bills, and damages the Texas economy."

Some Texas officials cite plummeting oil prices as a reason to fight back against federal regulations. Due to a complicated mixture of geopolitics and supply and demand, the price of a barrel of West Texas crude – the U.S. benchmark – has tumbled nearly 60 percent in the last six months. That means growth in oil production will probably slow as 2015 unfolds. Porter called a set of looming federal regulations “unnecessary burdens and regulations on an industry that is already struggling” in a commentary that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published Tuesday

"It is unfortunate that the EPA has chosen to release their methane reduction mandate at a time when the energy industry has already been reeling from low oil prices," state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, told the Tribune in a statement. He added that this federal proposal and others "will disproportionately impact the Texas economy as compared to the rest of the nation."

Still, Texas lawmakers this session could consider some proposals to limit wasted methane. Lawmakers are talking about methane emissions from drilling, but mostly in the context of reducing flaring — the practice of burning off excess gas that can’t be captured by existing pipeline infrastructure.

Flaring has been happening a lot in Texas lately, what with the low price of natural gas and the difficulty of building expensive pipelines to transport it. That causes other air pollution issues and wastes a lot of precious gas, as a recent series from the San Antonio Express-News highlighted. Texas flared more than 33 billion cubic feet of gas in 2012 alone, the newspaper found. Nearly two-thirds came from South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale.

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