Encouraging Congress to Enact the Best Possible Environmental Regulations
Senior Fellow, ISE
Principal, Presidio Energy Technology
Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas. Although the mass of methane emitted by human activity is only 1/100 that of carbon dioxide, its immediate warming effect is comparable because methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas. Globally, the oil and gas industry is responsible for 15% of all methane emissions, natural and anthropogenic, and these emissions should, in principle, be easier to control than those from sources such as wetlands, rice cultivation, or cattle ranching.
“On October 17, I led a small delegation that presented these arguments to the architect of H.R. 2711, who in turn tasked us with devising an amendment to H.R. 2711 that encourages technological innovation in methane leak detection. The breadth of stakeholder support gives this bill a better than average chance of passage.”
However, methane is an odorless, colorless gas that is never emitted purposefully. Therefore, unless you look for it, you will not find it. Environmental regulations, most importantly those promulgated in 2016 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mandate periodic inspections of oil and gas infrastructure for methane leaks. These inspections must be performed by one of two methods. The first (“Method 21,” as pictured) collects and analyzes air around connectors, valves, pumps, and other components. The second (optical gas imaging) uses an infrared camera to visually detect plumes of methane gas. Both methods tend to miss the largest emitters.
Over the last two years, the Trump Administration has taken a series of steps which, if finalized, will weaken methane inspection procedures. In response, Congresswoman Diana DeGette (CO-1) and 32 co-sponsors have introduced a bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 2711, that would restore Obama-era procedures. This is a bad idea. The 2016 regulations, written with all good intentions, are already outdated. Innovators, in both commercial and academic sectors, are devising rapid screening techniques, some using airborne or satellite platforms, which are both more efficient and more effective than the currently mandated methods. Perversely, Obama-era rules prevent these technologies from being certified as permissible means of compliance. Recent Trump administration proposals do nothing to alter this situation.
A surprisingly diverse group of stakeholders, ranging from the conservative American Petroleum Institute to the progressive Environmental Defense Fund, and including academic groups such as the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, have written letters in support of methane leak detection rules that encourage the development and use of improved technology. On October 17, I led a small delegation that presented these arguments to the architect of H.R. 2711, who in turn tasked us with devising an amendment to H.R. 2711 that encourages technological innovation in methane leak detection. Although few introduced bills become law, the breadth of stakeholder support gives this bill a better than average chance of passage.
Related post: Better Rules for Natural Gas Leak Detection and Repair
Robert L. Kleinberg is Principal of Presidio Energy Technology, a non-resident senior fellow of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, and adjunct senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy of Columbia University.
He will speak on Technological Innovation and Environmental Regulation at the 2020 American Chemical Society National Meeting.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.