Why the Bureau of Land Management Should Stop Letting Oil and Gas Developers “Throw Away” Federal Methane

By: Stacey Steep, Articles Editor

On June 25, 2013, President Obama announced a government-wide plan to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the plan left an important GHG mitigation strategy off the table. The President could take action today to reduce the GHG methane (CH4) emissions from federal oil and gas development.

Oil and gas systems’ GHG emissions are second only to the power generation sector,[1] and the sector is the main driver of CH4 emissions.[2] According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), oil and gas systems are the largest CH4 source in the country, emitting 176 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) in 2011.[3] Of this amount, 85 MMTCO2e of methane—the equivalent of 24 coal-fired power plants[4]—were lost to venting and leaks.[5] These numbers are striking, but are likely much higher.  Past estimates put methane emissions closer to 252 MMTCO2e.[6] EPA likely underestimates total emissions and there is no clear consensus on how much methane is lost.[7]

It may seem counterintuitive to lose so much of what is actually valuable natural gas, but these emissions are routine. Like a leaky hose, oil and gas developers emit methane throughout the drilling process. Methane is released when drillers purge water from the well, release gas to maintain optimal pressure or to power equipment, store oil or condensate, dehydrate gas, finalize the well completion process, or use combustion equipment at the well pad.[8]

Although CH4 emissions pale in comparison to CO2 emissions, methane’s potency creates an immediate climate change risk. Over a 20-year time frame, each pound of methane is between 72-105 times more powerful at increasing atmospheric heat retention, known as Global Warming Potential (GWP), than the same amount of CO2, and over a 100 year timeframe, methane’s GWP is between 25-33.[9] This warming potential takes on a new importance as we near climate “tipping points.” By accelerating warming, these emissions whittle away what little time is left for humans and ecosystems to adapt to the changing climate.

Environmentalists have called for additional oil and gas methane reductions under the Clean Air Act,[10] but as the country waits for the EPA to act, the President can address emissions on Federal lands immediately. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for managing 700 million acres of federal onshore subsurface minerals; equivalent to roughly a third of the entire United States.[11] Emissions from federal lands contribute not only to climate change, but also to lost royalties otherwise shared among federal, state, and local governments.

BLM could quickly reduce these losses. The Government Accountability Office estimated that BLM could eliminate up to forty percent of CH4 emissions by requiring methane control technologies.[12] A Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) report was even more optimistic, estimating that up to eighty percent of CH4 emissions could be captured using readily available technologies.[13] These processes could reduce approximately thirty percent of total U.S. methane emissions.[14]

BLM has not required these mitigation measures on federal leases. It suggested it may propose a rule to deal with methane waste prevention,[15] but has otherwise not addressed methane emissions. Despite a Secretarial Order requiring BLM to address climate change in its planning processes,[16] no field offices require methane mitigation measures as lease stipulations. This summer, the BLM released three draft Resource Management Plans (RMPs), which will cover over 9.8 million acres of drilling in Montana—more than 10% of the state—and results in at least 145 new federal wells per year over the next 20 years.[17] None impose mandatory mitigation measures. Instead, the plans point to a 2012 EPA rule, which is expected to reduce methane emissions by only seven percent.[18] A seven percent methane emissions reduction is a far cry from the eighty percent emissions drop cited by the NRDC.

BLM acknowledges that, “inaction [on climate change] benefits people who are alive today while potentially harming future generations.”[19] But even this misses the mark. Inaction on methane emissions is impacting us now by contributing to near-term climate change costs, reducing natural gas reserves, and losing profits through lost royalties. The President should act and require methane controls on federal land.

[1] EPA, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990-2011, 1-115 (2013).
[2] See NASA-Funded Study Helps Untangle Methane Mystery (2012), http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2012-263.
[3] See supra note 1.
[4] Based on EPA data, see infra note 4, using EPA’s GHG Equivalencies Calculator, http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/calculator.html.
[5] See supra Note 1 at 3-56, 3-61.
[6] Oil and Natural Gas Sector: New Source Performance Standards and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants Reviews, 77 Fed. Reg. 49490, 49535 (August 16, 2012).
[7] See EPA OIG, EPA Needs to Improve Air Emissions Data for the Oil and Natural Gas Production Sector, 17, 20 (2013).  National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration direct atmospheric measurements have documented release rates of four percent and nine percent of production in fields in Colorado and Utah, respectively. See Jeff Tollefson, Methane Leaks Erode Green Credentials of Natural Gas, Nature, January 2, 2013, http://www.nature.com/news/methane-leaks-erode-green-credentials-of-natural-gas-1.12123.
[8] General Accountability Office (GAO), Federal Oil and Gas Leases: Opportunities Exist to Capture Vented and Flared Natural Gas, Which Would Increase Royalty Payments and Reduce Greenhouse Gases, 5-7 (2010).
[9] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, Ch. 2, Table 2.14 (2007).
[10] Environmentalists Cite Strict EPA Plan In Push For Expanded Drilling NSPS, June 12, 2013, http://www.insideepa.com.
[11] See DOI-BLM, Mineral and Surface Acreage Managed By BLM, available at http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/About_BLM/subsurface.html.
[12] Supra note 6.
[13] Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC), Leaking Profits, 5 (2012), http://www.nrdc.org/energy/leaking-profits.asp.
[14] See id. at 4-5 (noting that the Oil and Gas industry accounted for thirty seven percent of methane emissions overall, and measures would reduce methane emissions by eighty percent).
[15] Onshore Oil and Gas Order 9: Waste Prevention and Use of Produced Oil and Gas for Beneficial Purposes, 1004-AE14, http://federalregister.gov/r/1004-AE14.
[16] Secretarial Orders 3226 (January 19, 2001) and 3289 (Feb. 22, 2010).
[17] The Miles City, Havre, and Billings Field Offices developed the three RMPs, whose preferred alternatives propose to open federal leases on 5.4 million, 4,042,298, and 606,096 acres, and predict 43, 98, and 4 new wells per year, respectively.  Draft RMPs may be found here: http://www.blm.gov/mt/st/en.html.
[18] Supra note 6.
[19] Bureau of Land Management, Billings and Pompey’s Pillar National Monument Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, 4-604 (2013).

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