Photograph by Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

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The flaring of gas as waste, seen here in North Dakota, is one source of methane from the energy industry. Many other sources of leaks are invisible.

Photograph by Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

Oil and Gas Industry Faces Its Methane Problem

An EPA decision on tougher rules is coming, but some companies aren't waiting to tackle emissions.

Seen with the naked eye, a natural gas facility's storage tanks and pipes appear fairly innocuous—boring, in fact. Switch to an infrared camera, and it looks like a five-alarm fire. Clouds of gas billow upward, spewing methane gas into the atmosphere.

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will decide on new rules aimed at the oil and gas industry's emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that often comes from leaky or inefficient equipment. But as the industry awaits possible rules, it is also taking some steps of its own to reduce emissions.

President Barack Obama seeks to reduce all greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons, by 17 percent from 2005 levels, and switching from coal or oil to natural gas has been a main component of the plan. But according to Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund, the switch itself is not enough.

"Natural gas is being marketed to people as a cleaner, lower-carbon alternative to coal and oil," said Brownstein. But based on research his organization has done on leaks from the energy industry, he said, "the benefits of switching from coal or oil to natural gas are unclear so long as this issue hangs out there."

In fact, an analysis by the Rhodium Group, an economic research firm in New York City, suggests that the only way to make the administration's target is to rein in methane, the primary component of natural gas.

Many of the fixes that could curb leaks from the oil and gas industry, which accounts for almost 30 percent of U.S. methane emissions, are simple and cost-effective, advocates say.

"There's a lot of incentive for the industry to capture these emissions," said Matt Todd, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute.

One such incentive is economics: Wasted gas, after all, is wasted money. "Once you go out and find those leaks and fix them, the vast majority of them actually pay for themselves, because you're saving gas," said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group in favor of tougher rules.

During Climate Week last September, six oil and gas companies announced the formation of a new industry coalition aimed at cutting methane. The American Petroleum Institute also has suggested that the industry might be able to find some common ground with the EPA on the rules.

Hunting an Invisible Climate Villain

Some methane pollution is blazingly visible. In North Dakota, where oil drillers lack the equipment and pipelines to capture the gas that accompanies extraction of crude, the practice of flaring off the methane lights up some areas over the Bakken shale like big cities at night. (Related: "Space Views of Natural Gas Flaring Darkened by Budget Woes.")

In tightening the EPA rules, "going after oil wells is a no-brainer," said Schneider. But he added that the real payoff will come from reducing methane emission from other parts of the supply chain: the transmission lines, processing plants, and equipment used to take natural gas from the wellhead to power plants, homes, and businesses.

Some of the sources of these "fugitive" emissions, which contributed eight million tons of methane to the air in 2014, are large targets: A University of Texas study released this week found that just 19 percent of the industry's pneumatic devices—controllers powered by pressurized natural gas—were the source of nearly all the methane belched into the atmosphere by that particular equipment. The study suggests that upgrading a relatively small share of pneumatic devices could have large benefits.

Houston-based Southwestern Energy is looking at replacing its pneumatic devices with ones that run on zero-emissions fuel cells, one of several measures it has taken to cut pollution. The company says that since 2006, it has kept 37 billion cubic feet of natural gas out of the atmosphere, equivalent to the emissions from almost four million cars.

Mark Boling, president of the V+ Development Solutions division at Southwestern, said executives were a little worried about how operations staff in the field would react to company mandates to monitor for excess gas. As it turned out, he said, "they took pride in the fact that they were out there finding these leaks"-and in the process, they helped the company bring down costs.

It's gotten easier for companies to do this kind of tracking. Advances in technology, particularly infrared cameras and mobile monitoring systems, are "game-changers in terms of being able to find and fix these leaks," said CATF's Schneider.

Still, some companies—such as distribution facilities down the production line that don't own the gas they're transporting-have less incentive to capture escaped gas. Others might choose to spend capital where it's expected to bring in a faster return, such as drilling a new well, rather than replacing equipment.

"If more companies were to see and look at the data, look at what can be done," said Southwestern's Boling, "I think they would be convinced that this is the right thing to do."

Environmentalists: Volunteers Are Not Enough

A big question, according to Schneider, is whether the EPA will decide to regulate existing oil and gas facilities rather than just new ones, which have been subject to some pollution restrictions since 2012.

The new rules now being considered would be broader in scope and could add a wider range of both oil and natural gas facilities to the list of regulated sites.

The EPA runs a voluntary Natural Gas STAR program that lists several participants committed to reducing methane. But participation has fallen off in recent years, even though many of the leakage issues that the EPA identified when it began the program in the 1990s persist, according to Paul Gunning, director of the agency's climate change division.

"Many years later, some of those sources which we were targeting early on still hold up as some of the important emission sources" that still need to be tackled, he said.

The industry's efforts to cut methane emissions might be laudable, but "voluntary measures just are not going to get us across the goal line here," said Schneider. The only way to get the whole industry working on the problem, he said, is to craft new regulations and enforce them.

"This is not an issue where you can simply pull a few producers around the table, get them to agree to do the right thing, and assume that the problem's going to be solved," said EDF's Brownstein, noting that there are 6,000 oil and gas producers in the United States. "It will be impossible to ensure that all 6,000 are doing the right thing if you don't have the law."

On Twitter: Follow Christina Nunez and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.