EPA Focuses on Methane Leaks as Climate Change Takes Center Stage

EPAIn the September 2015 edition of the US EPA’s Compliance Alert, EPA reported that it and state investigations had identified Clean Air Act compliance concerns regarding significant emissions from storage vessels, such as tanks or containers, at onshore oil and natural gas production facilities. This EPA alert is consistent with the administration’s attention on climate change and coincides with the papal visit, all of which set the stage for international attention on climate change in December at COP 21 in Paris.

The compliance concerns involve an evaluation of whether vapor control systems have been properly designed, sized and operated to control emissions consistent with the regulatory requirements. Storage vessels are regulated because they contain: 1) large quantities of volatile organic compound (VOC s) that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone- (2) hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as benzene, a known carcinogen- and (3) methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

This compliance alert comes while the oil and natural gas production industry is evaluating EPA’s proposed changes to the regulatory program for air emissions from the oil and gas industry (80 FR 56593 September 18, 2015) in an effort to further reduce methane emissions consistent with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. During his state of the union address on January 20, 2015, President Obama proclaimed “No challenge poses a greater threat to the future generations than climate change.”

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the U.S. last month provided an opportunity to pontificate his view that the climate change is a global problem disproportionately impacting the poor. He echoed President Obama in proclaiming that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home.

World attention will focus on climate change in December in Paris when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change holds its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) with the view that COP21 “will be a crucial conference, as it needs to achieve a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en.

As the oil and natural gas industry evaluates the regulatory changes proposed by EPA (comments are due on or before November 17, 2015), representatives of nations across the planet will be preparing to discuss views on an international climate agreement. It will be interesting to see if the parties can agree upon anything but given the fact that the Pope and the President of the leading world superpower agree that climate change poses one of the greatest threats to our planet, it is possible that COP21 will produce an agreement far more reaching than the Kyoto Protocol of COP3 in 1997.

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The President’s Methane Reduction Strategy – Here’s What Energy Companies Need to Know

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President Obama recently released a Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions (Strategy) that sets forth a multi-pronged plan for reducing methane emissions both domestically and globally.  Domestically, the plan is to focus on four sources of methane—the oil and gas sector, coal mines, agriculture and landfills—and to pursue a mix of regulatory actions with respect to those sources.  Energy companies now have the opportunity to help influence exactly what those actions will be.

For the oil and gas sector, the Strategy indicates that the federal government will focus primarily on encouraging voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions—such as bolstering the existing Natural Gas STAR Program and promoting new technologies.  But the Strategy also identifies two areas of potential mandatory requirements.  First, later this year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will issue a draft rule on minimizing venting and flaring on public lands.  Regulated parties will have the opportunity to submit comments after the proposed rule is released.  Second, the Strategy confirms that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will decide this fall whether to propose any mandatory methane control requirements on oil and gas production companies.  Consistent with that announcement, on April 15, 2014, EPA released five technical whitepapers discussing methane emissions from the oil and gas production process.  The agency is soliciting comments on those whitepapers—they are due by June 16, 2014.

For coal mines, the Strategy indicates that BLM will soon be seeking public input on developing a program to capture and sell methane from coal mines on public lands.  The Strategy further indicates that EPA will continue promoting voluntary methane capture efforts.

For landfills, the Strategy calls for public input on whether EPA should update its regulations for existing solid waste landfills, indicates that EPA will be proposing new regulations for future landfills, and indicates that EPA will continue to support the development of voluntary landfill gas-to-energy projects.

For agriculture, the Strategy does not suggest any new regulatory requirements.  Instead, it indicates that EPA and the Department of Energy will work to promote voluntary methane control efforts and that those agencies will place special emphasis on promoting biogas—starting with the release of a “Biogas Roadmap” in June 2014.

In addition to these sector-specific approaches, the Strategy emphasizes the need for improved methane measurement and modeling techniques, both domestically and globally.  All of the topics covered by the Strategy are ones about which regulated parties may want to submit comments—to EPA, BLM and/or the Office of Management and Budget.

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