(This article was updated on May 23, 2016, to correct a mistake in the estimated 2040 projected methane leakage amount, and to update the figures based on the early release of the EIA’s AEO 2016 Reference Case.)
The EPA issued its final rule on cutting methane leakage from oil and gas facilities today. These regulations are sorely needed as the industry is leaking this potent Greenhouse Gas (GHG) at unprecedented levels.
But a statement from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in the New York Times today highlighted the danger of these important actions being used to justify the unsustainable growth in natural gas production that the industry is planning. McCarthy told the Times, “These new actions will protect public health and reduce pollution linked to cancer and other serious health effects while allowing industry to continue to grow…“.
Those health benefits are really important and relate to the VOCs in the rule. But when it comes to methane or VOCs, it is the production growth that we are going to really need to address if we’re going to reduce emissions.
There seems to be a perception in the Obama administration that the forecast 34% growth in U.S. gas production will be all fine if methane leakage is cut by 45%. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t add up. Here’s why this doesn’t work, particularly for the climate.
The administration has committed the United States to playing its role in keeping global warming from surpassing the dangerous 2 degree Celsius level and pursuing 1.5 C. This commitment is enshrined in the Paris Agreement signed by the US and 174 other countries last month. The administration is working on a roadmap to achieve that but has already committed to cutting emissions 83% from 2005 levels by 2050.
So emissions have to go down dramatically, no two ways about it.
Average methane leakage in the US natural gas system has been estimated at around 3.8% of production. Based on AEO 2015 figures that means that of the 27.15 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas produced that year just over 1 TCF leaked out, playing havoc with our climate (natural gas is almost pure methane and as a greenhouse gas methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2)).
If EIA forecasts are right (a big if but let’s not get distracted), by 2040 the US will produce 36.4 TCF (AEO 2015). At currents rates that would mean almost 1.4 TCF of leaked methane. But if the EPA rule is successful, that could be cut 45% to 0.76 TCF, only about 24% less than today’s level.
Update: EIA released an early release of the AEO 2016 Reference Case on May 17, 2016. In this new projection, US gas production rises to 43.4 TCF in 2040; a 19% increase on the AEO 2015 Reference Case. In this case, the methane rule would cut leakage to 0.91 TCF in 2040. This is only 9% less leaking methane than in 2015.
Anyway you cut it, growing natural gas production over the next decades is a disaster for the climate. Even at zero methane leakage the emissions from burning all that natural gas are around 2 billion metric tons. That would mean natural gas accounting for pretty much all allowable US emissions in 2040, possibly more.
The administration is making great progress on climate and the regulation of methane is an important and long overdue step. But the administration must realize that slowing the production of fossil fuels is essential to achieve climate goals, and natural gas cannot get a free pass. Methane leaks or no methane leaks.