The Climate Math of EPA’s Costly Methane Rule

While pushing new regulations on methane emissions, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggests that her agency still doesn’t fully understand the oil and natural gas industry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new rules targeting methane and other emissions from the oil and natural gas industry, which the agency claims are required to “combat climate change.” The White House is also discussing new methane restrictions with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, part of a broader climate action plan between both countries.

But public data show that the amount of global warming avoided by imposing costly new methane regulations on oil and natural gas activities would be almost zero.

According to the EPA, methane emissions in the United States only constitute about 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Methane has a warming potential that is about 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the 10 percent figure takes that higher warming potential into account.

EPA estimates that all U.S. oil and natural gas systems emitted 232.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMT CO2 Eq.) of methane in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. This means oil and natural gas systems combined account for about one-third of total U.S. methane emissions.

Notably, this figure incorporates EPA’s recently revised numbers, which increased the estimated amount of methane emitted by 27 percent — and which may be based on flawed assumptions. EPA appears to have taken emissions data from large reporting facilities and simply assumed that much smaller facilities — which do not report to EPA — have similar emissions rates.

Still, when you’re talking about millions of metric tons, it sounds significant. The media has given us an endless supply of frightening headlines about methane, and drilling critics have done their part to gin up fear about yet another odorless and colorless gas.

But the data tells a different story.

In 2013, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 6,811.1 MMT CO2 Eq. This means methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems represent only about 3.4 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States.

But what if U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were so large that even a small percentage of them could have a dramatic impact on the earth’s climate? If that were the case, then 3.4 percent of total U.S. emissions would not be something to dismiss.

According to calculations from Chip Knappenberger, the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute (a free market think tank), it takes roughly 1,767,250 MMT CO2 Eq. to raise global average temperatures by one degree Celsius.

The EPA says it plans to reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. The new rules were proposed before EPA revised its methane emissions data, and those upward revisions — flawed though they are — are only currently incorporated into the agency’s 2013 estimates. So we’ll assume the 45 percent reduction target applies to emissions in 2013, which comes out to 92.96 MMT CO2 Eq. by 2025.

We’ll also assume that methane emissions every year from 2025 to 2100 — the year to which many climate models currently forecast — are kept 92.96 MMT CO2 Eq. below where they would have been without EPA’s rules. Multiplying 92.96 MMT CO2 Eq. by 76 years gives us 7,064.96 MMT CO2 Eq. of total avoided methane emissions.

To get the global temperature impact, we’ll divide 7,064.96 MMT CO2 Eq. by 1,767,250 MMT CO2 Eq., which gives us 0.004 degrees Celsius, or four one-thousandths of one degree, of avoided warming by the year 2100. Mr. Knappenberger, with the Center for the Study of Science, has estimated the avoided warming from EPA’s methane rules to be even smaller: 0.002 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Critics have claimed methane emissions could be nearly twice as much as what EPA estimates. But even if methane emissions were ten times larger than what is indicated in EPA’s data, the global temperature impact of EPA’s rules would still be virtually zero.

For such de minimis climate benefit, the economic impacts of these new regulations could be serious, especially for the men and women working in the oil and natural gas industry already suffering from a difficult market. Some financial experts, for example, say EPA’s methane rules could wipe out smaller companies who are also feeling the pinch from low commodity prices.

According to an analysis from National Economic Research Associates (NERA), EPA’s projected benefits from its methane rules are “highly uncertain and very likely overstated,” and the agency’s figures “lack the appropriate peer review that is necessary for use in supporting regulatory policy.” NERA, which has also conducted economic analyses for the U.S. Department of Energy, found that the cost of EPA’s methane rules would be as high as $155 million in 2020, or about three times larger than EPA’s projected cost.

An EID analysis last year also identified the flawed basis on which EPA has proposed its new methane regulations, including inflated price estimates and emissions assumptions that are inconsistent with the agency’s own data.

The head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, recently claimed that the industry has not done well in keeping its methane emissions in check, while curiously also admitting that EPA is still just learning about the oil and natural gas industry. Nonetheless, McCarthy said EPA has to move forward with what she called “common-sense” regulations.

According to EPA, “common-sense” apparently means new regulatory burdens that fail to achieve any noticeable environmental benefit, with costs that the agency has failed to justify.

Comments

  1. In general, the oil and gas industry has already made great strides reducing leaking methane in their operations but seeing as our climate change is so prominent in the minds of people, the O&G industry should recognize the public relation benefits associated with doing all he can to comply with EPA regulations, even when the impact they would have are negligible.

    • Rick Kooi says:

      Yes,
      the oil & gas industry have made great strides…no wait…for the few billions they have actually spent reducing emission…..in exchange for the 3 billion dollars they have invested…..they have received nearly $600 BILLION in corporate welfare subsidies….
      Of that, a chunk has been spent running ads attempting to stop ANY subsidies to CLEAN ENERGY.
      An even bigger chunk has been spent (and continues to be spent) muddying the waters of public opinion on the Very Real Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change.

  2. Alberto Zaragoza Comendador says:

    I’m afraid your numbers are wrong. No way it can be as much as 0.004ºC!

    According to NOAA, the additions to methane levels currently imply a ‘forcing’ (i.e. a warming impact) of 0.003 watts per square meter per year. Actually for the last year with available data, 2014, it’s 0.004 – but for previous years it was less. It’s at the bottom of the page.
    http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/aggi.html

    Converting from watts/m2 to ºC of temperature rise is voodoo science, so you can plug in your favorite number. The ‘central’ or preferred value among climatologists is 1ºC = 1.33w/m2; this is derived from the fact that a doubling in CO2 concentrations leads to an additional 4w/m2 forcing, and the effect of a doubling in CO2 is supposed to be 3ºC (4 / 3 = 1.33). But nobody knows the real value. Recent estimates of the effect of a doubling in CO2 are more like 1.5 or 2ºC, which would mean it takes perhaps 2 watts per m2 to raise temperatures 1 degree. That would make the following numbers even more grotesque. But let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

    Assuming 1ºC = 1.25w/m2, then methane is contributing 0.003 x 0.75 = 0.00225ºC per year. That means in the remaining 84 years of the century, we would avoid 0.189ºC if we stabilized levels as opposed to letting them continue their galloping rise.

    Now the tricky question is: how much would methane emissions rise if EPA’s rules were implemented? Well, you say the agency estimates 232.4 million tonnes of CO2-eq methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Presumably this includes not just wells but processing plants, storage sites, pipelines, etc.
    http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases.html

    Dividing by the EPA’s multiplier (25) gives us 9.3 million metric tonnes of CH4. 1 part per billion is 2.77 million tonnes, so the emissions the EPA wants to regulate are 3.35ppb/year.
    http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/research/energy/downloads/methaneuk/chapter02.pdf

    Here’s an accounting puzzle: allegedly the US oil and gas industry emits 3.35 ppb/year. Just in the US, and just from oil and gas. And yet, the GLOBAL increase in methane levels is only about 5ppb per year!
    http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/aggi.fig2.png
    (1790ppb in 2008, 1820 in 2014)

    Clearly, the ‘airborne fraction’ of methane, i.e. the amount of emissions that remains in the atmosphere, must be minuscule. The vast majority of the methane we release into the air is reabsorbed by Mother Nature.

    So the question is: if the US cut its emissions from oil and gas operations by 40%, what would be the effect on methane levels?

    Well, 3.35 x 0.4 = 1.34 ppb/year. Assuming 100% of this decrease translates into reduced methane levels, that means avoiding 113ppb by the end of the century (1.17 x 84). The IPCC says that the 1050ppb increase in the industrial era (from 750 to 1800ppb) has corresponded to a forcing of 0.5w/m2. So another 113ppb would be equivalent to (113 / 1050) x 0.5 = 0.054w/m2. Which, divided by 1.33, is 0.04ºC. Hey, it seems my figure is 10 times higher than yours – but wait a sec.

    (If I remember correctly methane forcing is linear, i.e. 1ppb causes the same warming no matter whether it’s going from 100 to 101 or from 500 to 501. But you might want to check that with someone who knows more than me.)

    Now, what about that airborne fraction? Allegedly global emissions are about 330 teragrams. which is to say 339 million tonnes. That’s 119ppb/year.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_methane#Emissions_accounting_of_methane

    So it seems airborne fraction is 5/119 = 4.2%. Let’s round that up to 5%, to be on the safe side (a higher airborne fraction means emission reductions have a greater effect on temperature).

    Going back to our 0.04ºC, that means the Obama-Trudeau climate action hurricane will lower temperatures by the end of the century by 0.0016ºC. But even that figure has problems:
    -It takes time for greenhouse gases to fully exert their warming impact. The ‘feedbacks’ that ‘amplify’ their effect (I didn’t make up these words) take decades. And without those feedbacks, you cannot have a value of 0.75ºC per watt/m2; it would be lower, meaning even less temperature impact.
    -Pretty much every recent estimate finds that the effect of a doubling of CO2 (i.e. a forcing of 4w/m2) is quite a bit less than 3ºC, so this effect cannot happen even if you want to wait for it. If for example the effect of a doubling of CO2 was 1.5ºC, that would mean each watt/m2 contributes only 1.5 / 4 = 0.375ºC, instead of 0.75ºC. So instead of 0.0016ºC by the end of the century, we would be talking about 0.0008ºC.
    -I assumed the regulations would be effective from now on, when in fact EPA aims to implement them by 2025.

    So there you have it: if the EPA gets its way, our great-great-great-grandchildren will enjoy a world about 0.001ºC cooler.

    Feel free to use these numbers, or to update the post with them!

    Regards

  3. Scottar says:

    McCarthy is just another Gaia religious worshiping loon. She doesn’t know an oil hole from her blow hole.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Everley of the industry-backed Energy In Depth applied Cato’s analysis to Obama’s new proposal and incorporated updated methane measurements. Everley found Obama’s plan would lead to “0.004 […]

  2. […] new NASA study further bolsters research by Energy In Depth, which shows that EPA’s costly methane rule would account for a […]

  3. […] further bolsters research by Energy In Depth: EPA’s new methane rule would reduce global warming a mere 0.004C […]

  4. […] recent year for which data is available. However, these are revised numbers and may be based on flawed assumptions. EPA appears to have taken emissions data from large reporting facilities and simply assumed that […]

  5. […] Further, the federal government is probably the last place you’d want to start such an inquiry, to say nothing of bringing charges against people. Lynch’s colleague over that EPA, Gina McCarthy, has recently admitted that they don’t even understand how the oil and gas industry works, particularly when it comes to emissions. And even if you accept the assumptions offered as to what particular emissions do to global temperatures the government’s proposed remedies seem highly unscientific. For one example, when actual scientists get a chance to look at the data, they conclude that the current methane rules under discussion would only (possibly) reduce temperatures by .0004 degrees C by 2100. […]

  6. […] At global scale, stopping 45% of methane leakage would help the climate over the next 20 years as much as shutting down one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants. So don’t let anybody minimize this opportunity as a trivial matter. […]

  7. […] reduce global temperatures by four one-thousandths of one degree by 2100.  Energy In Depth has done the math and found that EPA’s methane regulations, which EDF has been pushing for in every study, will […]

  8. […] targeting the oil and gas industry with new regulations on methane emissions, which account for only about 3.4 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States, makes even less sense than the report used to justify those […]

  9. […] Energy In Depth has noted before, EPA’s estimates could be based on faulty assumptions: EPA appears to have taken emissions data […]

  10. […] targeting the oil and gas industry with new regulations on methane emissions, which account for only about 3.4 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States, makes even less sense than the report used to justify those […]

  11. […] considered, it begs the question: Will regulations make any difference? Energy In Depth recently did the math using EPA’s 2016 draft inventory estimates and found that that methane regulations would only […]

  12. […] In Depth has done the math and it shows that EPA’s methane regulations will only achieve a reduction in global temperatures […]

  13. […] broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the century. The EPA also projected hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits based on […]

  14. […] broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the century. The EPA also projected hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits based on […]

  15. […] broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the century. The EPA also projected hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits based […]

  16. […] broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the […]

  17. […] broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the century. The EPA also projected hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits based […]

  18. […] broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the […]

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