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Methane Emissions From Fracking Plummet, But EPA May Impose More Rules

Methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing operations, or fracking, fell 73 percent since 2011, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. A welcome development for President Obama’s climate plan, but one that may not stop the EPA from imposing more regulations on the oil and gas industry.

The EPA just released data showing that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions inched up 0.6 percent in 2013 due to higher utilization of coal to generate electricity. But as emissions from coal grew, emissions from the oil and gas industry fell last year, in particular, methane emissions from fracking operations.

“Reported methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems sector have decreased by 12 percent since 2011, with the largest reductions coming from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells, which have decreased by 73 percent during that period,” the EPA reported. “EPA expects to see further emission reductions as the agency’s 2012 standards for the oil and gas industry become fully implemented.”

Good news for fracking, but is it good enough to stop the EPA from issuing more regulations? It’s not exactly clear.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy has said the agency was considering “cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts” to reduce methane emissions. In 2012, the EPA imposed pollution control requirements for oil and gas wells which is expected to drive methane emissions down.

But pressure from environmentalists and Democratic politicians has increased as the deadline for EPA to issue possible new rules for methane looms. Any new rules or voluntary programs crafted by the agency would have to be finalized by March 2016.

“Ton for ton, methane causes at least 80 times more warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period,” reads a letter from 15 senators, led by Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, to President Obama.

“Voluntary standards are not enough,” the 13 Democrats and two independents wrote. “Too many in the oil and gas sector have failed to adopt sound practices voluntarily, and the absence of uniform enforceable standards has allowed methane pollution to continue, wasting energy and threatening public health.”

Environmental lawyer David Doniger with the Natural Resources Defense Council has called for increased regulations on fracking to reduce methane emissions. The New York Times reported in July that Doniger helped come up with the “blueprint” for the EPA’s rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants — which is why some lawmakers are taking his interest in methane emissions seriously.

“We know this methane leakage can be cut by half or more with proven, cheap technology,” Doniger wrote in a blog post. “But EPA’s current standards don’t apply to fracked oil wells that also contain gas — gas that the drillers often just waste by venting or flaring it away.”

“The Obama Administration, in conjunction with the NRDC, is carrying out an all-out assault on America’s fossil fuel resources that is unnecessarily inflating the cost of energy,” said Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe.

Inhofe has questioned the integrity of a series of EPA white papers on methane emissions from the natural gas industry. Inhofe wrote to the White House that the EPA white papers lack “a fundamental understanding” of the oil and gas industry and that the agency “believes it has the capacity to actually help oil and natural gas companies” operate more efficiently.

Natural gas operations, including fracking, releases methane emissions which can be captured and sold or burned off — also called flaring. The EPA has been trying to enhance the environmental image of gas by encouraging companies to capture gas instead of flaring it, which means it’s not being emitted into the atmosphere.

The oil and gas industry says it doesn’t need any more help from the agency to capture methane as emissions have been falling dramatically even as gas production booms.

“Thanks in large part to innovations like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, America is leading the world in producing natural gas and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Howard Feldman, head of regulatory and science affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.

“Industry will continue to be a leader in environmental stewardship as it maintains our country’s leadership position as the top producer of natural gas,” Feldman added.

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