This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled out its new regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas development. These rules come even as the industry has slashed emissions in recent years, all while natural gas production has skyrocketed. As the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) pointed out, these costly proposals “could inflict more pain on the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry – at a time when market forces are already creating economic challenges.”
Of course, the reason the EPA wants to regulate methane is to mitigate climate change, since methane is a greenhouse gas. But based on the most recent peer-reviewed studies – many of them spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) – and some of the best data we have available, the climate argument appears to fall apart. Indeed, the methane “leaks” from natural gas development are already well below the threshold (3.2 percent leakage rate) at which scientists believe natural gas may lose its greenhouse gas advantage:
Nevertheless, each time one of these studies has come out, instead of noting the low leakage rate, EDF has proclaimed that the data show emissions are “higher than previous estimates” and that new EPA regulations are absolutely necessary. For instance, a spokesman for EDF recently claimed:
“Almost everywhere we look, we find emissions that are as high, or higher, than earlier estimates; that they are widespread and unpredictable in nature (and thus undercounted); and that they aren’t being fixed fast enough.”
The press has generally followed EDF’s lead, producing headlines like, “Methane leaks in Barnett Shale vastly higher than EPA estimates, study shows,” and “Methane emissions higher than federal estimates, study shows.”
But these reports are ignoring a critical fact. The most important information is not a comparison of one emission estimate with another. That tells us nothing about the overall environmental impact, and indeed only serves as a basis for us to compare one study to another. The practical implication is quite limited.
What’s far more important is the actual methane leakage rate, which is what determines whether natural gas is beneficial for the climate. That’s why we’re talking about methane, a greenhouse gas – climate change and how to address it, right?
The fact is, most if not all of the most recent studies on this subject have confirmed that methane leakage is not negating the climate benefits of natural gas. And as much as some environmental groups may want folks to be distracted into conversations about relative estimates between studies and inside baseball conversations about whether EPA needs to tweak some of its data assumptions, it would be unfortunate if we lost track of the bigger – and very positive – story of natural gas.