President Joe Biden recently discussed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed draft regulations regarding methane emissions at the U.N. Climate summit in Egypt. The greenhouse gas-focused regulation will target super emitters and provide tools to communities to aid in emissions reduction efforts.
Methane, the predominant compound in natural gas, is the target of federal regulators. A potent greenhouse gas (GHG), methane comprised 11 percent of total American GHG emissions in 2020. Though carbon dioxide is by far the most emissive gas, making up 79 percent of emissions in 2020, and stays in the atmosphere longer, methane’s chemical composition makes it 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, also called the greenhouse effect.
The new draft rules expand upon GHG emission reduction rules from the EPA’s 2021 proposal, specifically targeting super emitters. According to the EPA, a large percentage of methane emissions come from a small number of leaks and “emissions events” from oil and gas (O&G) operations, which the EPA calls super emitters. Empirically, the EPA’s draft rules define a super emitter as “emissions of 100 kilograms (220.5 pounds) of methane per hour or larger”.
The draft rules propose strengthened leak detection and monitoring requirements at every well site and compressor station. Continuous leak detection is also being proposed for abandoned and unplugged wells until the owners submit a plan that details how they will close the well and complete a final emissions inspection.
A crucial piece of the proposed rules is the creation of a “Super Emitter Response Program”. This program aims to provide communities with tools to identify and report any GHG emissions from O&G operations. As it exists now, those who wish to report an emission event must do so to regulators, who are then tasked with further investigating the incident. The proposed program enables third-party entities to directly report emission events to the operator rather than the regulator. However, third parties must qualify in order to have the ability to contact operators in this program. Qualified third parties and their leak detection equipment must be approved by the EPA “as having appropriate expertise and experience”, and must provide “specific, factual information” that catalyzed the contact.
Once reported, operators are required to conduct an analysis of the location within five days. If the leak is found to be “caused by malfunction or abnormal operation”, operators are granted 10 days to correct the issue. However, if the issue cannot be corrected within the 10-day period, operators must provide either state or federal regulators with a corrective action plan.
To promote transparency of the proposed program, all third party emission event reports and descriptions of corrective actions by operators will be available to the public online.
Third party reporting of emissions events raises the potential for environmental and other nonprofit groups with expertise in air quality and emissions testing to develop partnerships with communities located near gas wells and facilities to be an extra layer of security against such large events. EPA recently awarded more than $53 million for community air monitoring projects, many near industrial or oil and gas sites, as part of the Biden administration’s climate and environmental justice efforts. The methane rule, if finalized, would build on that.