Lenny Bernstein (c) 2013, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Ninety health, environmental and sportsmen’s groups asked the federal government Thursday to clamp down on the release of methane gas by the petrochemical industry, asserting that the United States cannot reach its goal for reducing heat-trapping emissions without addressing the issue.
Led by the Clean Air Task Force, the groups asked the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department to develop federal regulations to plug leaks of methane from oil and gas exploration equipment and the industry practice of burning excess methane, known as “flaring.” The groups are also concerned about leaks of natural gas — whose major component is methane — during transport.
“Climate scientists agree we cannot reach our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal without curbing methane from the oil and gas industry,” said Sarah Uhl, organizer of the Clean Air Task Force’s Stop the Leaks Campaign. “From the wellhead to customers’ meters, there is leakage all along the system, and it all matters, and it can all be cleaned up cost-effectively.”
Although it comprised only about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, according to the EPA, and breaks down more rapidly, methane is a much more potent heat-trapping substance than carbon dioxide. Its impact on climate change is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide’s over 100 years.
A study by climate scientists published last month showed that the government may be seriously underestimating the amount of methane discharged into the atmosphere by oil and gas exploration and livestock. It called into question a decision by the EPA this year to reduce its estimate of natural gas emissions nationwide.
But a September study led by University of Texas researchers concluded that methane gas leaks at 190 onshore natural gas production sites were small and that total emissions were in line with EPA estimates.
The Obama administration is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020, and world leaders want to hold the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius in the hope of avoiding irreversible climate impacts.
With current methane emissions largely unregulated, even by states, the groups asked the EPA and Interior to step in. They said Interior’s policies are 33 years old and need updating to reflect the boom in natural gas exploration brought on by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. It also called on Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to develop rules for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would review the groups’ letter.
An Interior Department spokesman said in an email: “As part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, Secretary (Sally) Jewell is committed to continuing to work collaboratively with state governments, as well as the private sector, to reduce emissions across multiple sectors, improve air quality, and achieve public health and economic benefits.”