Harnessed and burned, methane can power a city — but when it leaks from a well into the air, methane pollutes badly.
That cost-benefit balance is a cornerstone of debate between environmentalists who say emissions from gas drilling are rampant and dangerous, and the oil and gas industry that says it’s under control.
The dispute reignited this month when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it intends to toughen regulations covering methane emissions by the industry in 2016.
Gas producers, researchers and state officials say drillers are adopting advanced technology to eliminate leaks from gas production sites and pipelines.
“The industry is doing, in general, its best to stay ahead of the curve,” said David Yoxtheimer, a shale gas researcher at Penn State University.
Critics of drilling decry the release of natural gas into the air as an issue needing firmer government oversight to make sure leak reduction technology is employed, especially since more methane — the primary element of natural gas — is taken from the ground than ever before.
“Its really important that we get some common sense rules of the road in methane and not just leave it to companies,” said Andrew Sharp, director of outreach for PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group.
When it is extracted from shale, methane is processed and transported through pipelines for sale, a journey that provides many opportunities for leaks to occur.
Methane pollution’s impact is worse than carbon dioxide because it more efficiently traps radiation, which exacerbates climate change. It has a global warming potential more than 20 times higher than carbon on a 100-year time scale, according to the EPA. Methane made up 9 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in 2014 in the United States, the agency says, citing natural gas and petroleum systems as the biggest source. Other sources include cattle farms and landfills.
The state defines a leak as occurring when the concentration of methane detected in the air is more than 2.5 percent, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Methane can be explosive when levels in the air reach 5 percent.
The EPA will issue emission benchmarks for equipment on new wells and expand government-industry partnerships to reduce leaks on old ones, the agency said this month. The rules omit 200,000 old wells in Pennsylvania, even more nationwide, by not requiring companies to update methane emissions equipment on those wells. That’s a problem for many environmental groups.
But gas producers and the companies that sell methane detection equipment say industry initiative and technological innovation is ahead of the regulatory curve.
“You’d be surprised at the number of companies that are proactive,” said Rich Wynn, president of EDI, a subsidiary of Hy-Bon Engineering, which develops and installs custom equipment to capture gas from well pads and redirect it into pipelines.
EDI, based in Belpre, Ohio, sells equipment to drillers including Range Resources, Anadarko, Chesapeake, EQT and Consol Energy, all of which drill in the Marcellus.
Cameras that document otherwise-invisible gas fumes are common in the industry, as are air-tight valves and closed-venting systems that direct gas into pipelines from wells. Leaks from storage tanks can be mitigated with vapor-recovery units. Many companies have 24/7 computerized gas controls that sound an alarm if a leak happens.
“What people don’t realize when you talk about that is that there’s a lot of automation, in general, in the system,” said Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Seneca Resources, headquartered in Houston, Texas.
Environmental groups agree with industry officials that it’s in a company’s best interest to collect as much gas as possible.
“Those are nickels and dimes and quarters leaving the pipeline if you’re not capturing them, so it makes great environmental sense as well as great economic sense,” said George Stark, a spokesman for Cabot Oil & Gas, headquartered in Houston. The company, with 350 Marcellus shale wells, says it has no-leak equipment on new wells and is installing equipment on old ones.
Companies in Pennsylvania are required to inspect wells for methane leaks monthly and fix leaks within 15 days. It’s a program spokesman Eric Shirk says leads the country with some of the “toughest, most stringent and enforceable emissions requirements.”
But companies are not required to submit inspection reports to DEP unless the agency requests them, making total emissions estimates difficult.
“Pennsylvania does not know exactly how much methane is being leaked. They simply have not taken the time (to) … really detect the breadth of the issue,” said Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, an environmental group based in Pennsylvania.
Companies including Range Resources, Cabot Oil and Gas, and Southwestern Energy have reported decreased greenhouse gas emissions. Range says it has reduced methane emissions, by 100 million cubic feet per day from 2011 to 2013 from 1,100 to 1,000 million cubic feet per day, and says it’s still dropping. The EPA reports a 73 percent decrease in total emissions nationwide since 2011.
Older gas wells, established before fracking and horizontal drilling took off, produce less gas, at a lower pressure than freshly drilled Marcellus holes, and that alters the amount of methane they might leak, said Yoxtheimer, the Penn State researcher. The EPA acknowledges that companies are working to update equipment on them.
“With conventional wells, it’s not so much how much each individual well might be leaking but the sheer number of them,” said Yoxtheimer.
Data collection and analysis by researchers at universities, the EPA, and industry groups varies, leading to a malleable body of statistics that environmental and industry groups use to emphasize their arguments.
“When you look at methane nationwide, you pretty quickly realize there’s a data problem,” said Williams with the Environmental Defense Fund.
In 2012, the EPA required companies to capture gas found in the water that returns to the surface with drilling and fracking deep shale — a process called “green completion.” Emissions from well completions declined 97 percent since the rule was enacted, according to a study from the University of Texas at Austin, co-funded by the Environmental Defense Fund.
“Because of the relative success for a program like that, it points to the need to have solid regulations in place for other technologies,” Williams said.
This article was written by Katelyn Ferral from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.