Large Methane Leaks Highlight Ongoing Risk to Climate

March 4, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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A new study of the recent methane leak in Aliso Canyon, California confirms that it was the largest methane leak in US history. According to the study, the disaster’s impact on the climate will be equivalent to the effect of annual greenhouse gas emissions from over half a million cars.

Last week at the oil industry gathering CERA week, Reuters reported Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy revealed that, “Methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector are substantially higher than we previously understood.”

Also last week, the Texas Observer reported that the combined methane leaks of the Barnett Shale gas fields was actually greater than the volume of the Aliso Canyon disaster — contributing 8% of nationwide methane emissions. And while the Aliso Canyon well has been capped, the Barnett shale emissions continue on.

Since the comparative impact of methane on climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, this growing evidence that the problem is much bigger than previously thought indicates the urgent need to define and address the issue.

Weak New Regulations and Voluntary Reporting

Prior to the Aliso Canyon leak, the Obama administration had proposed new rules for the oil and gas industry regarding methane leaks. But there is a significant loophole — the rules will only apply to new infrastructure and not the existing facilities currently leaking methane.

It is clear that the Aliso Canyon leak could have been prevented if the well operator had simply installed a safety valve on the well and there was greater regulatory oversight. However, an audit released last October of the state regulatory agency responsible found “inconsistent permitting, monitoring and enforcement of well construction and operation.”

At the time Steve Bohlen, state oil and gas supervisor admitted, “The division hasn’t owned up to its responsibility as a regulator in the past.”

Without regulations to address the existing gas production and storage infrastructure it is highly unlikely there will be a significant reduction in emissions.

Additionally, the EPA has not had much success getting industry cooperation on this issue. In order to better understand the scope of the problem the EPA requested that gas producers voluntarily report methane emissions. According to Reuters, only eight out of 8,000 producers volunteered the information.

Voluntary Vigilance

Russell Gold documented the growth of the fracking industry in his industry-friendly book The Boom. Gold recently wrote about a poll about concerns of fracking contaminating drinking water and he referenced some insight from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

A couple years ago, then MIT professor and current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the risks of fracking were “manageable” although he warned that we shouldn’t assume that meant it was being managed. The same is true today. Vigilance is still required.

The problem with this argument is we are relying on the oil industry to volunteer to be vigilant. And history has proven this is a losing bet.

In 2014, Inside Climate News published the results of an eight month investigation into the emissions from Texas drilling operations. The report details numerous problems including reluctant regulators, oversight budget reductions, industry friendly politicians and widespread allowance of voluntary auditing of methane emissions.

Robert Forbis Jr., an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University, summed up the situation in Texas to Inside Climate News.

“Energy wins practically every time,” Forbis said. “It seems cynical to say that, but that’s how states see it—promote economic development and minimize risk factors.”

Addressing the ever growing methane emission problem will require tough new regulations, monitoring and oversight — not voluntary measures. Based on the EPA’s recent experience of asking the industry to volunteer to address the problem we know the odds of success are eight in eight thousand and those numbers just aren’t going to get the job done.

Blog image credit: Energy Information Administration

Justin Mikulka

Justin Mikulka is a freelance writer and audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, New York. He holds a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

Tags: climate change, environmental effects of fracking, Fracking, greenhouse gas emissions, methane leaks