What David Vitter Got Wrong About the EPA, Methane | Commentary

Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:39pm

Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana and the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wants to spin the results of a new study on natural gas and methane leakage as the latest evidence of the Environmental Protection Agency’s supposed overreach.

“The EPA has been on a witch hunt to shut down hydraulic fracturing, and yet again the evidence doesn’t back up their excessive claims,” Vitter said in a statement.

The senator is right when he notes that the study found emissions rates from hydraulically fractured well completions to be lower than previous EPA estimates. But his reasoning is backwards: The study proves that the EPA got it right. EPA rules are the reason for the lower-than-expected measurements. In fact, the study suggests the agency should broaden these rules.

Think of it this way: If we made food safety rules more strict and fewer people got sick from salmonella, would we then conclude that the new rules were unnecessary? The senator’s argument is just as illogical.

The peer-reviewed study, led by the University of Texas at Austin and coordinated by the Environmental Defense Fund, is the first of 16 scientific evaluations of methane emissions from all parts of the natural gas supply chain. This initial study focused on production from shale gas wells. It’s a must-read for all concerned with the issue, but here are some of the main takeaways:

Emissions measurements during “ well completion” — the process that takes place after the well is drilled and fractured, when frac fluids and sands are drawn back up the well to make way for gas production — were 97 percent lower than previously estimated because many drillers used best practices as required by the new EPA rule, which comes into full force in January 2015.

Emissions from pneumatic valves, which control routine operations at the well pad, are higher than EPA estimates.

So-called fugitive emissions — leaks from equipment at the production site — are also much higher than EPA estimated.

The discrepancy between the “well completion” phase and the others can be attributed to the “green completion” technology used at the majority of the wells in the study. This technology, a direct consequence of the EPA’s New Source Performance Standards, will be required of all natural gas producers beginning in January 2015. And the fact that it’s already being adopted in advance of that deadline brought down emissions substantially.

Nationwide, no one knows how many operators today are using green completions. For that reason, this study doesn’t claim to offer a snapshot of current industry-wide production practices. However, the data suggests that once this practice is required broadly in 2015, emissions from this phase of the production process will decline.

In short, this first EDF-coordinated study demonstrates the effectiveness of the EPA’s rules. That’s why the EPA needs to expand these commonsense standards. Green completion technology should be required for not just gas development, but also for shale-oil wells and combined oil-and-gas wells, which aren’t currently covered by the rules.

The EPA should also require technology in order to reduce emissions from pneumatic valves. And finally, there should be no excuse for significant natural gas leaks at any point in the supply chain. The EPA should require natural gas producers to engage in regular and effective leak detection and repair programs. Let’s stop wasting America’s precious natural gas resource.

Methane remains a serious problem. As a greenhouse gas, it is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. And if the natural gas industry wants to claim that natural gas is better for our climate than other fossil fuels, it will need to support and implement these leakage rules.

This first study indicates that we have a long way to go, and we will learn more about what those steps should be as more of these and other studies are completed. But Vitter is wrong to suggest the EPA is part of the problem — it is the reason there’s some hope for fixing this problem. The EPA got this one right.

Elizabeth Thompson is vice president for U.S. Climate and Political Affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

An earlier version of this article stated that green completion technology should be required for shale-gas wells. It should have read shale-oil wells.