There is a common refrain that we need more regulations on oil and gas development, particularly with respect to methane. But here’s an inconvenient truth: Methane emissions over the past several years have actually declined — not due to regulations, but due to technological advancements and proactive industry mitigation efforts.
A recent Texans for Natural Gas analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data confirms this progress. Between 1990 and 2016, methane emissions from oil and gas production activities nationally declined by 3 percent and 16 percent, respectively, even as oil production grew by 20 percent and natural gas production grew by 53 percent.
In its last few days in office, the Obama administration finalized controversial new methane regulations for oil and gas production on federal lands, most notably the oddly named Waste Prevention Rule. This costly climate regulation targeted two routine development practices: venting, which refers to the controlled release of gas to prevent a potentially hazardous buildup in equipment; and flaring, the burning of gas for safety and to meet air quality regulations.
According to the most recent data in the U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, methane emissions from associated gas venting and flaring during petroleum production declined 17 percent between 2013 and 2016. Over this same period, methane emissions from “miscellaneous production flaring” during oil production declined by approximately 11 percent, even as oil production increased 19 percent.
In Utah’s Uinta Basin, EPA data show that methane emissions from onshore oil and gas production declined by 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from 2013 to 2016, an almost 24 percent decline.
Some have tried to downplay operators’ contributions towards these declines, pointing to the introduction of several EPA regulations over the past decade. Yet the data once again tell a different story: Methane emissions from venting and flaring were declining before the EPA rolled out its first rules designed to reduce methane emissions in 2012.
Between 2005 and 2012, methane emissions from venting and flaring during hydraulic fracturing declined by nearly 80 percent. In other words, proactive industry efforts were already reducing methane emissions before EPA’s methane regulatory regime began.
These reductions are only part of the story. Over the past several years, EPA emissions data were also downwardly revised from previous years, as improvements in methodology allowed for more accurate estimates. No wonder, then, that many critics have claimed federal methane regulations are a solution in search of a problem.
For example, between the 2016 EPA data — which were used in crafting the Waste Prevention Rule — and the 2018 EPA data, methane emissions from petroleum production for the year 2014 were downwardly revised by nearly 50 percent. The latest data also show downward revisions of 49 percent and 50 percent for 2013 and 2012, respectively.
Associated gas venting and flaring from petroleum systems saw even larger revisions. The most recent data show a 54 percent downward revision for 2015, while 2014, 2013 and 2012 saw petroleum system associated gas venting and flaring emissions revised down by 73 percent, 86 percent and 93 percent, respectively.
The Waste Prevention Rule was premised on the idea that methane emissions — particularly from venting and flaring — were not only too high, but that in the absence of regulation, those emissions would only increase. Neither turned out to be true.
Earlier this year, a federal court paused the Waste Prevention Rule after an industry lawsuit raised serious concerns about the prior administration’s basis for imposing the regulation. With a mountain of federal data showing declining methane emissions — and lower than estimated emissions from venting and flaring — it’s easy to see why the judge came to that conclusion.