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Reducing Fugitive Methane Emissions


 April 2015    

Reducing Fugitive Methane Emissions

By: Morgan Abele, President of Operations, PULS

Recently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules aimed at reducing fugitive methane emissions. The goal is to ultimately reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40-45% from 2012 levels by 2025. As the U.S. is now the largest natural gas producer in the world we realize that methane, the main component of natural gas, is a large contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG). Methane is considered one of the more potent greenhouse gases, and according to the EPA it’s the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S., accounting for about 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.


Morgan Abele

The EPA announced that the new rules that will apply to all new oil and natural gas facilities, that they will
regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector directly (previously the industry’s GHG monitoring was primarily on a voluntary basis).  These facilities are already tightly regulated and may have a nominal effect on the reduction of fugitive methane emissions.

While the proposed EPA regulations are aimed squarely at future production, transmission, compressing and other industry related facilities, they are not addressing emissions from existing sources. The new regulations place their scope of focus on new infrastructure, but there are miles of buried systems that may play a role in GHG emissions.

Add to this the supporting infrastructure of tanks, valves, metering systems, and other structures and you have a significant potential for unreported and underreported sources of methane emissions.

What is being overlooked by the EPA, regulators and often the communities within these areas, are the legacy systems that existed long before hydraulic fracking boom of the last decade. The Marcellus region, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia represent the birth of the oil and gas industry in the United States. In Pennsylvania alone an estimated 385,000 oil and gas wells have been dug since 1859. In addition, there is an estimated 100,000 miles of gathering systems with the vast majority put in place long before the fracking boom.

While it is important to ensure that unconventional drilling, “fracking”, is minimizing its impact on the environment, it is equally important to remember that there are other systems in place that are older, less documented and maintained, and largely ignored. If we are serious about minimizing fugitive methane emissions, we need to address these legacy systems as well as the infrastructure planned for the future. There are also concerns that the EPA’s efforts to cut carbon emissions may impact natural gas operations. The high costs to maintain compliance may be challenging, perhaps unachievable for some companies.

Studies on Methane Emissions
Efforts to reduce methane emissions have included a variety of studies that will help the regulators understand where methane leaks occur and how the gas industry might minimize their levels of GHG released into the atmosphere. Recent studies suggest that the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventories (GHGI) may be underestimating the emissions.  According to the report, the natural gas industry accounts for 25% of methane emissions in the U.S., with transmission and storage accounting for 30% of this quantity.

Colorado State University’s (CSU) Engines and Energy Conversion Lab did a study on methane emissions in 2013 which was sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, a number of pipeline operators (Dominion, Dow Chemical, Enable Gas Transmission Co., Kinder Morgan Inc., Columbia Pipeline Group, TransCanada, Williams), and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA).

The comprehensive 2013 CSU study published by Environmental Science & Technology on February 10, 2015, involved a variety of researchers measuring methane emissions at 45 compressor stations and storage facilities across the country. This included 25 sites that are required to file reports to the EPA under their Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP).

The findings from the study indicated that only a few sites accounted for the most emissions, two measuring more than the other 43 combined, likely due to faulty equipment. There doesn’t seem to be a concern over not regulating the older systems, the legacy systems, which are more prone to equipment failure or breakdown due to their age.

The Environmental Defense Fund commissioned a technical consulting firm, ICF International, to create an Economic Analysis of Methane Emission Reduction Opportunities in the U.S. Onshore Oil and Natural Gas Industries. Their report was published in March of 2014, and according to their analysis, 90% of 2018 emissions will be coming from sources in existence in 2011. New and modified gas sources are covered by the newer regulations, but this leaves older infrastructure unregulated. Older systems and equipment, like compressors, valves and distribution pipelines would be beyond the scope of the new rules. environmental2_april2015


The EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (EPA’s latest draft released in February of 2015), notes that natural gas systems’ methane emissions have decreased nine percent and CO2 has an increase of less than one percent compared to the 1990 data. This increase is due to better technology and equipment and the usage of plastic pipelines instead of unprotected steel and cast iron. The draft states that methane emissions from crude oil production have increased by 33 percent, accountable for 0.4 percent of the oil industry’s fugitive emissions. Since the oil sector provides such a small percentage of the total emissions in the petroleum industry, it has little impact on the numbers and little interest from the advocacy groups.

The recent draft inventory asserts that in processing natural gas liquids, the emissions from compressors are the primary cause of fugitive emissions. In 2011, the EPA began requiring compressor stations with high levels of CO2 emissions to report their documentation to the EPA GHGRP, the largest effort in the transportation and storage sector to collect methane emissions data.

Gathering Lines
Gathering systems, lines that take natural gas from well pads to processing plants, refineries or transmission pipelines, are lightly regulated if at all. The onshore gathering pipelines are an estimated 240,000 miles of lines across the country, most of which do not need to report to the stringency of larger, high pressure pipelines and the facilities associated with them. Pipeline Safety advocacy groups have concerns over the volatility of the product in the gathering lines and the potential for levels of GHG emissions emanating from those lines.

The various shale plays across the U.S. (Marcellus, Utica, Barnett and Bakken) utilize larger diameter, high pressure gathering lines. As oil and gas production continues to grow, collecting data on the gathering pipelines could contribute to enhanced safety to people and the environment.

In order to achieve the most absolute data relating to methane emission quantities and causes, we need to look in all directions. Focusing only on the more easily measured infrastructure may be leaving a gap, it may be creating incomplete results. The EPA needs to review the external surveys and data while incorporating industry knowledge into their program’s methodology. Taking these extra steps will ensure a cleaner, safer environment for our future generations.

For more information, please contact Morgan Abele at 610-487-4631 or

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