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Meet methane: The potent greenhouse gas hangs in some regulatory limbo

Natural gas is flared off at a plant outside of the town of Cuero, Texas. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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The Department of the Interior recently postponed upcoming deadlines that would have made oil and gas producers capture leaking methane from their wells on federal and tribal lands. Instead, officials will wait until lawsuits against this Obama-era rule are decided. The announcement came on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency proposing to halt other methane restrictions for new oil and gas sites. Both announcements follow a March executive order from President Trump ordering agencies to review fossil fuel regulations.

This issue of leaking methane puts into question one of the key selling points of natural gas — its status as a cleaner alternative to coal for generating electricity.

From a climate change perspective, carbon dioxide is by far the most significant greenhouse gas. It lasts in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Methane, another greenhouse gas, breaks down in the atmosphere much faster.

“After 10 years, it won’t be there anymore,” said Stefan Schwietzke, a climate change researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. (Methane, when it does break down, becomes carbon dioxide). Schwietzke said while it’s in the atmosphere, methane captures a lot more heat, up to 86 times more.

Natural gas is mostly methane, so the amount that leaks into the atmosphere during production of the fuel really matters. It can get into the air through open valves and faulty seals. Producers also intentionally vent or flare off gas as part of their process. Schwietzke said if the natural gas supply chain leaks more than 3.4 percent, then natural gas loses its climate advantage over coal in the short term.

Producers used to leak a lot more than that 3.4 percent a couple decades ago. But the EPA estimates U.S. natural gas production leaks at only about 1.6 percent today.

“We’ve done that not by international treaties or government regulation,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group. “We’ve done that as an industry operating under market forces.”

There’s financial incentive to capture more methane. Since it’s basically the product that drillers are providing, leaking methane amounts to wasting supply. But Sgamma said some burning off or venting is needed for a safe natural gas production process.

“If you try to just tighten everything up and not release any pressure, at certain points you can actually create explosions,” she said.

The Western Energy Alliance is part of a lawsuit against the Interior Department’s recently postponed methane rule, arguing it reaches beyond the authority of the Clean Air Act.

Sgamma said regulations forcing companies to do too much to capture methane would drive up costs. Ultimately, it is that cheap natural gas that is responsible for the U.S. lowering carbon dioxide emissions more than any country in the world.

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