Oil and Gas

EDF's Symons says EPA likely to change methane plan before it's final

Last month, U.S. EPA released its proposed rule for the regulation of methane emissions and volatile organic compounds for new and modified oil and gas operations. The industry has taken significant steps on its own to reduce methane emissions, so why does regulation remain necessary? During today's OnPoint, Jeremy Symons, senior director of climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, discusses the future of the rule and the impact it could have on the strength of the natural gas industry in the U.S.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Jeremy Symons, senior director of climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Jeremy, thanks for coming back on the show.

Jeremy Symons: Thanks for having me back.

Monica Trauzzi: So Jeremy, last month, U.S. EPA released its proposed rule for the regulation of methane emissions and volatile organic compounds, VOCs, for new and modified and oil and gas operations. The industry has already taken significant steps on its own and with current regulations in place to reduce methane emissions. So why does more regulation continue to be necessary?

Jeremy Symons: Well, the good news is everybody agrees that this is a problem, that we need to reduce emissions of methane from the oil and gas industry. It's a huge source of emissions, about 7 million tons of methane into the air every year, and that's a problem for health, that's a problem for climate change, because it's a potent greenhouse gas, and it's also a problem because we're wasting a natural resource in natural gas.

But in terms of why there needs to be regulations, it's very simple. Emissions have been going down in one part of the natural gas system, the production part, because regulations have been put in place, and because of the actions of some good actors who have taken voluntary action. But overall, 99 percent of the industry players are not part of those voluntary programs, and emissions have been going up in gathering, in transmission and storage, and the other parts of the system.

So we have missions that are expected to go up overall across the entire oil and gas system by 25 percent in the next 10 years without regulations.

Monica Trauzzi: But in terms of feasibility and economics, how much of a climb will it be for stakeholders to achieve that 40 to 45 percent reduction?

Jeremy Symons: Well, it's very doable, and that's the great thing, is this is an opportunity, and even when industry says, "Well, leave us alone and we'll do it ourselves," sort of acknowledging that this is very cost-effective. There are technologies out there, infrared cameras that make it very simple to identify what has been an invisible problem, and find these leaks. When they're being used, and there are case studies where big companies like Noble in Colorado, have been able to repair 100 percent of the leaks they've found in five days or less, right? And they've found thousands of these leaks using the cameras.

So it's easy to do. It's cheap. We're talking less than a penny per 1,000 cubic feet of gas, and that's less than a half a percent of the cost of natural gas, in order to get a 45 percent reduction, according to some comprehensive analysis that has stood up to industry scrutiny, as well as the government's own analysis.

Monica Trauzzi: So what are the big questions, then, that still remain for you as you take a look at what the administration proposed last month?

Jeremy Symons: Well, the big -- the big issue to us is it's only a down payment. The rule itself doesn't get us all the way to the 45 percent reduction that's eminently doable, and doable now. And what it really took a look at is new sources, which will help with the growth of emissions over time. But what do we do about the 7 million tons of methane emissions that are already out there? How do we get those reductions?

There are some steps in here to deal with a fraction of the wells, but there are over a million wells that are operating out there currently. There's infrastructure that's been built that can be modernized and put people to work cleaning up these leaks, saving gas. We're talking about enough gas to heat 5 million homes a year that's going literally up in smoke.

Monica Trauzzi: And it's always the discussions about the existing sources that tend to be the most dynamic, and also more costly.

Jeremy Symons: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about the market dynamics at play. There have been some -- there's been the volatility in the international marketplace this year. In terms of economics, does a regulatory move like this make it more difficult for the U.S. to stand up against its international counterparts?

Jeremy Symons: Absolutely not. I mean, the idea that the U.S. is going to become competitive in the international energy scene by having lax rules on oil and gas doesn't really make sense. We know how the U.S. has always been a leader at finding ways to build our economy and build our energy resources, but doing it responsibly. That's what the Clean Air Act is all about, and that's what it's been successful at doing.

So you look at the states that have been leading the way, Colorado, Wyoming, Ohio. They have seen production increase, and increases in jobs even as they put in place the very kinds of regulations that we're asking EPA to do when they move further. They're already, some of these states, well ahead of where EPA is.

Look at Colorado specifically, and the part of the country that's the heart of the drilling boom there, there's been a 16 percent increase in employment after the Colorado regulations were put into place. So the idea that this is a barrier or shackle, somehow puts us at a competitive disadvantage, it's really just something that you hear from the lobbyists and PR machines here in Washington. But when you get out and talk to folks on the ground and work with companies, they recognize that technology has taken us a long way. We know how to do this.

Monica Trauzzi: Since the release of the final Clean Power Plan and now these proposed methane regulations, there have been a lot of questions about whether the administration is retracting its support for natural gas, its long-standing support for natural gas. What's your view on that? Has there been a shift from this administration on what role natural gas should play in the future?

Jeremy Symons: Well, I think the administration can speak for what it thinks its role is, the role should be. I think the reality here is that clean energy has made such a huge jump in affordability and accessibility that we're really looking at a game changer. When you look at the availability of distributed solar, when you look at the availability of wind power and other technologies, natural gas was filling in a blank in people's minds. What do you do until these technologies are truly affordable at the scale we need to solve the nation's energy problems?

We are now past that. We are at a threshold of what can be a truly exciting change that lets us harness really unlimited renewable energy from the wind and from the sun, and we should go in that direction. Natural gas, oil are not going to disappear overnight. Everybody knows that. But there's no reason not to embrace clean energy.

Monica Trauzzi: The Clean Power Plan was pretty significantly changed from draft to final, based on public comments. Are you expecting the same for this methane rule?

Jeremy Symons: Yes. I think EPA has been very -- has done an excellent job at reaching out to stakeholders. They started this process by doing white papers and taking comment on that. So they actually added another level of data gathering that they've already incorporated, and they have a really good foundation and knowledge that this is doable. They've taken a lot of comments from states and from industry.

And so they have a strong foundation for it, but absolutely, EPA's generation position, that's why the comment period exists, and there's no reason that they're not going to continue the outreach to states, to industry, and to other stakeholders, to get it right.

Monica Trauzzi: EDF's Fred Krupp recently wrote an op-ed discussing the climate impacts of the energy bill that's currently being considered ...

Jeremy Symons: Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: ... in both chambers of Congress. Which elements of the energy bill suggest it's going backward on climate change, as Krupp sort of talks about in that op-ed?

Jeremy Symons: Well, I think the most disturbing thing at this point is the absence of discussion about climate change altogether. And you have two very different approaches that are happening. In the House, you're literally not allowed to talk about climate change as you try to advance energy legislation. There's almost a prohibition, in order for the parties to come together, because of the hostility from some quarters of dealing with climate.

In the Senate, you have a different approach, when Senator Murkowski's staff basically implied that the energy bill is sort of the GOP climate bill, and really trying to fill the vacuum of well, we're against Clean Power Plan, we're against a number of other actions the administration's taken. What is our plan to deal with climate? People are wrestling with that issue, and the people that are wrestling with it the most are seeing the energy bill as a possible answer.

Well, the reality is there hasn't been any analysis done. There are things in this energy bill that can help with some really important items, such as the innovation and competitiveness of our utility grid, and making sure that new clean energy technologies can deliver what their potential is. So that's on the good side.

On the other side, you have measures such as stripping something that Congress already passed just in the last decade, that requires federal buildings to be less and less dependent on fossil fuels. So how do these things add up? We don't know.

What we do know is that emissions -- Congress has a responsibility to act on climate change. That means that they have to put in place policies that bring emissions down, not up. And working on energy legislation, which is responsible for 85 percent of the climate problem, without talking about the issue, that's a problem.

Monica Trauzzi: It'll be an interesting fall to watch as this energy bill moves forward. Thank you for coming on the show.

Jeremy Symons: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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