By Briana Mordick, Natural Resources Defense Council
A group of 26 oil and gas producers organized by industry trade association the American Petroleum Institute (API)—and self-styled as “The Environmental Partnership”—announced they will be pursuing voluntary efforts to reduce climate change-fueling methane emissions from their operations. While this sounds good, and we commend the industry for at least acknowledging that there is a problem and that solutions are readily available, the reality is the actions they’ve announced barely scratch the surface. And given that API is supporting the Trump administration’s efforts to delay or repeal federal methane regulations by, for example, providing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt with questionable legal arguments for staying the agency’s methane rules, it’s difficult not to see this promise to do better as a greenwashing cover-up for their efforts to fight rules that would actually hold them to it.
On top of that, the industry’s voluntary program is even weaker than an already existing voluntary methane reduction program from EPA. Specifically, the API program suggests companies volunteer to address emissions from three sources:
- Leaks from equipment malfunctions and upsets in the production segment
- High-bleed pneumatic controllers in the production and natural gas processing segments
- Manual liquids unloading in the production segment
The Partnership’s website states that these three sources “were selected based on EPA emissions data.” However, EPA’s own voluntary methane reduction program, the Methane Challenge Program, covers 10 emission sources from activities across the oil and natural gas value chain, not just these few production and processing sources. And funny enough, none of the 26 members of this partnership volunteered to participate in the broader-reaching Methane Challenge Program.*
Even among the few emissions sources selected for API’s program, the recommendations for cutting pollution fall far short of best practices within the industry. For example, the Partnership will only require leak detection and repair (LDAR) to be conducted every two years, and even then, only at sites the operators have self-selected. However, academic research and industry’s own data shows that more frequent monitoring is required to effectively find and fix leaks. For example, BLM requires semi-annual LDAR at new well sites, Colorado requires that operators inspect for leaks at all but the smallest sites on a continuous annual, quarterly, or monthly basis, Wyoming requires quarterly LDAR for new or modified equipment in certain parts of the state, and California requires quarterly LDAR for new and existing facilities.
The Partnership also gives participants a full five years to implement these reductions—effectively a pass for unnecessary delay in taking any action at all. The rationale for this generous timeframe appears to be that 1) this program addresses existing emissions sources, which account for the bulk of emissions and 2) some operators are only just beginning to address methane emissions. However, operators are already easily complying with stricter regulations on existing sources in places like Colorado and Wyoming, and soon will be in California and elsewhere. In addition, a better approach would have been to structure the program in tiers, so that the program clearly incentivizes and recognizes companies that are further along and pushing themselves to make more aggressive commitments, rather than structuring the program around the beginners.
We welcome genuine efforts by industry to curb its methane and other air pollution, but this current effort falls far short of what’s needed and possible. And worse—it distracts from other efforts to actually address the problem. If API and the oil and gas industry are truly concerned about this problem, we urge them to support the federal methane regulation efforts underway instead of attempting to undermine them.
*CORRECTION: Southwestern Energy is participating in the Methane Challenge program through the One Future commitment option.