Oil and gas producers are spewing a lot more methane into the atmosphere than regulators previously thought.
New figures on greenhouse gas emissions suggest that the advantages of natural gas, long seen as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity, might be overstated, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry disputed the findings.
Using revised methods to calculate emissions, the EPA reported Friday that the United States oil and gas industry releases 9.8 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere each year. That’s 34 percent more methane than regulators previously estimated, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which also researches and calculates emissions from oil and gas facilities.
The new estimates put the oil and gas sector ahead of the agricultural industry as the leading source of methane emissions in the country. Methane emissions now account for 10.6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., per the report, up from 9.5 percent in 2013.
"That's simply too much climate pollution," Mark Brownstein, vice president of the EFD's climate and energy program, told The Huffington Post.
Methane emissions have increased over the last decade, according to a recent study. While the cause of that rise is disputed, environmental scientists and activists have blamed oil and gas facilities, especially leaky ones, for the uptick. The EPA’s report confirms that view, experts say.
“EPA is right to revise its numbers,” David Babson, a senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told HuffPost. “It was under-representing emissions.”
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Unburned, it packs 84 times more warming power than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere, according to the EDF. Methane emissions come mainly from leaks at processing and storage facilities, rather than from gas-fired electricity production.
Despite its warming potential, natural gas production has grown in recent years. Thanks in part to the fracking boom, energy producers are trading coal-fired power plants for facilities that run on cleaner natural gas. That could be good news for the climate, according to supporters of the switch, since burning natural gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal does. But widespread methane leaks at oil and gas facilities threaten to erase gains made by swapping coal for gas-fired power plants.
“It looks like the bridge fuel we thought would carry us to renewables is actually a lot worse than we thought," Babson said. “This highlights the need to more rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewables.”
A representatives from the major trade organization for oil and gas producers called the EPA's report "flawed."
"We're concerned the administration is putting politics ahead of science" Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.
Isakower said that methane emissions from the industry decreased substantially over the last year. He also claimed that the EPA's new estimates are “not an accurate reflection of science or reality.”
Babson said API's argument simply isn't backed up by science. "The new EPA numbers refute the argument made by the oil and gas sector that methane emissions are declining," Babson said. "That simply has not been borne out by the evidence."
For Brownstein, the question of whether the amount of methane emissions went up or down last year is largely beside the point. "I think it diverts attention away form the fundamental fact that you have 9.8 million metric tons of methane coming from the industry," he said.
“It looks like the bridge fuel we thought would carry us to renewables is actually a lot worse than we thought.”
In response to API’s claim that the new EPA estimates might be politically motivated, Brownstein said, "It’s kind of astonishing to me that API would champion getting better field data on the one hand and balk when the [EPA] actually learns from the science that’s been done and revises their methodology accordingly."
President Obama has committed to slashing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by between 40 and 45 percent by 2025. But the EPA’s report underscores the urgent need for regulators to adopt stricter rules for oil and gas facilities, experts said.
"There's plenty of evidence that these emissions can be effectively and cost-effectively reduced," Brownstein said. "The only question now is when do we get the right set of regulations in place at the state and federal level."
New regulations should impose tough standards on the fossil fuel industry, regardless of how such measures would affect producers, Babson said. "They can choose how to invest to meet the requirements or they can get out of the business."