Time to Stop Flaring on Public Land, New Regulations Target Fracking

With the fracking industry reeling from low oil prices, the Department of Interior finally released new rules that will force it to become more productive.

While the industry knows money can be made by capturing and selling methane, most operators still allow it to flare into the atmosphere – stoking climate change with emissions much more powerful than carbon. An incredible 20% of the gas produced in 2012 was flared, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The rules apply to oil and gas drilling on public and Native American lands – the goal is to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas 40-45% by 2025 from 2012 levels.

"I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere," says Secretary Jewell. "We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource."

As the dominant natural gas producer in the world, the US industry lost about $335 million-worth of gas from 2009-2014 between leaks and flaring – enough to power five million homes for a year, says Interior. Leaked methane also causes headaches, respiratory illness and other adverse health impacts on people that live nearby.

Flaring seen from space:


What’s in the Proposed Rules

The rules basically force good industry practices.

  • install currently available technologies, processes and equipment that limit flaring at oil wells
  • operators must periodically inspect for leaks and replace outdated equipment that vents large quantities of gas into the air. Large operators must use instrument-based leak detection such as infrared cameras to find and repair leaks, and smaller operators can use manual methods.

    At first, they have to inspect twice a year, but that drops to once if they consistently find few leaks.

  • operators must limit venting from storage tanks and use best practices to limit gas losses when removing liquids from wells.
  • Operators must pay royalties on flared gas at the same rate they pay for natural gas.
  • Phased in over several years, a cap will be set on the amount that can be flared per oil well, averaged across all producing wells on a lease.
  • Improves disclosure of flared volumes by requiring metering when they reach 50 Mcf/day.
  • Before drilling a new oil well, operators must have a waste mininimization plan.

These commonsense measures would be phased in over the next three years.

About half of flared gas on public lands can be economically captured and sold, according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). On the state level, Colorado, , Wyoming, North Dakota, and most recently Pennsylvania have passed their own regulations.

Methane emissions account for 9% of US greenhouse gas emissions and close to a third of that comes from oil and gas operations. Meanwhile, the cost of compliance in minimal, about $150 million a year, reducing even the smallest operators’ profit margins by 0.1% a year.

Proposed rules are now open to public comments for the next 60 days.

Like all new regulations, these will likely be challenged in court.

They build on Interior’s regulations announced last year that oversee where fracking can occur on public lands, and how wells must be drilled to protect groundwater and to prevent spills. Companies also have to disclose the chemicals they use.

Entrepreneurs Respond

US entrepreneurs are jumping in to solve the problem of methane leaks. More than 75 companies across the country are part of a new "methane mitigation industry," such as Rebellion Photonics, which won Wall Street Journal’s 2013 "Startup of the Year." Its camera technology helps companies quickly find and repair leaks.

Toxic wastewater that’s produced during the fracking process can be captured to produce geothermal energy on site and can power equipment used at the oil field.

Porter Ranch, California

So far, about 88,000 metric tons of methane have spewed into our atmosphere, making this one leak the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California.

And Southern California Gas had plenty of warning. It showed signs of leakeage 24 years ago when inspectors reported they could actually hear a leak through borehole microphones!

In 2013, the utility applied for – and received – $898,000 a year (in addition to $3 million a year for repairs), to upgrade equipment like safety valves, which could have prevented this disaster, says Environmental Defense Fund. But the funds were spent elsewhere.

There are 418 natural gas storage facilities in the US, many of them old and deteriorating. The biggest is in Montana – with almost twice the capacity, according to US Energy Information Agency.

Half are part of the national gas pipeline network. The network is overseen by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but they do not even inspect them. Instead, they leave this to the states and their patchwork of regulations.

As for Porter Ranch, "The California Air Resources Board, in consultation with appropriate state agencies, shall develop a program to fully mitigate the leak’s emissions of methane by March 31, 2016," says Governor Brown. It "shall be funded by the Southern California Gas Company, be limited to projects in California, and prioritize projects that reduce short-lived climate pollutants."

Worldwide, around 3.5% of natural gas is flared. The US leads with the greatest number of flares and Russia leads on total volume, according to NOAA.

Another major problem is toxic wastewater spills. Since 2009, over 175 million gallons of wastewater spilled from ruptured pipes, overflows from storage tanks and even deliberate dumping," reports Associated Press, poisoning agricultural land and drinking water, and causing mass die-offs of plant and animals. There have been almost 22,000 spills in 11 states.

See this map of the US that shows where fraccidents have happened: poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, industrial disasters and explosions:

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