Climate Action

What the frack: EPA proposes rollbacks on regulations for methane

The EPA is proposing changes that roll back regulations of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. The changes would apply to methane released from oil and gas industries.

The latest rollbacks spell trouble for the planet. In short, more methane in the atmosphere means a hotter planet means more problems for everyone. Here’s how it works.

Packing a punch

When released into the air, methane traps heat and warms the planet with drastic efficiency. Methane makes up just 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but that number is misleading: The hydrocarbon is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, which makes up 82 percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions, but methane packs a much harder punch.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which influences our atmosphere over centuries, methane gets to work much faster, with dramatic warming occurring in years, not decades. Over a 20-year period, methane is more than 80 times as powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in our atmosphere.

Methane’s so bad that some scientists are even trying to convert methane molecules into carbon dioxide to cleanse the atmosphere of the highly potent gas.

Not just cow burps

Methane can occur naturally, but most methane released into the atmosphere is linked to human activities. Many point to agricultural practices — think cow burps — as the main culprit of methane emissions, but that’s not the case. The highest emitter of methane is the oil and gas industry.

According to the EPA, natural gas and petroleum systems account for nearly a third of all of U.S. methane emissions. Now the EPA wants to loosen the restrictions on these systems.

The proposed changes are not the EPA’s first push toward protecting the interests of the natural gas industry. In late 2018, millions of acres of drilling rights in Wyoming were auctioned off to major oil and gas developers.

The U.S. is currently undergoing a major shift to natural gas because it’s cheaper, more abundant and when burned, produces less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels. But while natural gas is often promoted as a clean alternative to coal, it’s not as harmless as you think.

Two-thirds of the natural gas in the U.S. is captured through a process called “hydraulic fracking,” or just fracking. In short, fracking is a drilling process that forces millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to crack open shale rock and release natural gas.

But here’s the catch: As fracking increases so do greenhouse gas emissions, specifically from methane. A Cornell University study published this month concluded that “shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.”

Leaky pipes

The major source of methane emissions from natural gas drilling is from leaks. Methane leaks are especially tricky to quantify because leaks can happen anywhere in the supply chain, which is why some estimates can greatly underestimate the amount of methane being leaked.

Recent estimates have shown that fracking operations lose anywhere between 2 to 6 percent of the gas produced because of leaking, venting and flaring. The problem, though, is that some estimate that if this threshold gets over 4 percent, which it may be already, natural gas may become worse than coal when it comes to climate change.

And some leaks can get out of control, as was the case in Aliso Canyon, California, when natural gas spewed out of a leaking well for four months, emitting not only methane but other volatile compounds, including the cancer-causing chemical benzene.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s new proposal would remove all federal requirements to install anti-leak technology within wells, pipelines and storage facilities on fracking sites.

The EPA cites economics as the major reason for the move, estimating that the proposed changes would save the oil and natural gas industry $17 to 19 million. As is the case of so many greenhouse gases and pollutants, though, the estimate doesn’t take into consideration the economic costs of a warming planet: rising sea levels, more intense weather events, retrofitted infrastructure, increased healthcare needs, forced migrations — costs that measure into the hundreds of billions.

We should be tightening regulations on natural gas drilling, not loosening them. Tell the EPA and your representatives in the House and Senate that these proposed changes stink. Join the environmental movement and take action in the days and months leading up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2020.