Opinion

One more time: Natural gas is not good for the environment (yet)

Methane leaks are becoming a national emergency. And the EPA needs to get on it yesterday.

As I've written before, one of the most environmentally damaging — and least publicized — consequences of drilling for natural gas is the release of methane. Natural gas burns cleaner than any other traditional fuel, but is composed mostly of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide if it leaks before it can be burned. Now there are indications that the situation is worse than we thought. Researchers just finished a new study on methane leaks in Pennsylvania natural gas wells, and the results are very, very bad:

Drilling operations at several natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated, new research shows.

Using a plane that was specially equipped to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the air, scientists found that drilling activities at seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale formation emitted 34 grams of methane per second, on average. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that such drilling releases between 0.04 grams and 0.30 grams of methane per second. [LA Times]

This is just one study, of course. But it confirms previous measurements, and provides yet another reason to err on the side of caution when it comes to methane and climate change.

What to do? Well, barring strong legislation aimed at rolling back climate change generally, the EPA is about our only hope. The agency is working on new methane emissions rules now, but reportedly won’t have them in place until 2016. Furthermore, the administration has not even begun to study the impact of methane leaks from oil and gas production. That’s far too long. We need these rules in place yesterday.

However, there are two reasons that we can be confident that some EPA rules on methane leaks will be implemented.

First, the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is now much more favorable to tough federal regulations. Ever since Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) deployed the nuclear option and implemented long-overdue filibuster reform, all the vacancies on that court (which oversees federal regulations) have been filled. These new judges aren't tree-loving hippies by any stretch of the imagination, but any new rules will have a much better chance before this court than the previous, reactionary-dominated version that spent the past five years eviscerating scores of regulations on the thinnest of pretexts.

Second, this kind of rule might not even inspire a strong legal challenge. Leaking methane is fundamentally different from most other kinds of pollution, which are usually byproducts of some process (carbon dioxide is an inescapable consequence of burning coal, for example). Methane is precisely the kind of stuff you don't want escaping during the extraction process, since it's a major part of what is being sold in the first place. It’s not inconceivable that a stiffer rule could end up making natural gas companies money, since with the proper fitting and tightening they could capture more of their valuable product.

Of course, it would be foolish to bet against litigation. It's likely that there will be some kind of lawsuit, just as it's likely that a new rule could hurt the bottom line of drilling companies at least a little. But rules that do not fundamentally threaten a business model are a lot less likely to inspire an enraged backlash than ones that do.

So if there’s any way the EPA can streamline and speed up its rule-making process, now would be an extremely good time to do so.

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