Proposed EPA Methane Emissions Regulations Are a Waste of Time and Energy

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

New Actions to Reduce Methane Emissions Will Curb Climate Change, Cut Down on Wasted Energy” reads the headline from Wednesday’s White House blog, posted by Counselor to the President John Podesta (who will be leaving this post soon to serve as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presumed 2016 presidential campaign).

Let’s hope Podesta didn’t write the title, because it is completely wrong.

First off, methane isn’t energy. It’s a gas. Like anything else, it can be converted to energy, and like a fuel the conversion process produces more energy than it takes to perform it. But methane leaks from the oil and gas sectors no more represent “wasted energy” than does cow flatulence.

More accurately, methane leaks represent lost revenue. Or at least they would if natural gas prices were higher. With prices as low as they are, companies sometime find it more costly to stop the leaks than what they gain by capturing the methane and bringing it to market.

Consider that the price of natural gas is so low in many regions where oil is being extracted from tight shale deposits (for example, the Bakken region of North Dakota and in west Texas) that the methane that is produced along with the oil is simply flared (burned) on site, rather than being captured and brought to market. It is more expensive to develop the transport infrastructure (largely it has to be transported via pipeline) than the return on the sale of natural gas.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2013, more than 260 billion cubic feet of methane was flared in the United States. In essence, this methane represented more “unwanted” energy than “wasted” energy.

But methane flaring is not the target of the new EPA regulations; instead, methane leakage is. In fairness, when it comes to climate change, on a unit basis, leaked methane is more important than flared methane, because the flaring process converts the methane to carbon dioxide (among other things), which has a much lower “global warming potential” than does methane.

This “global warming potential” is why methane leakage is targeted in the first place by the Obama administration—it is another “we are doing something about climate change” excuse for increasing the reach of the federal government.

The amount of methane that falls under the new EPA regs is very small; in the grand scheme of global warming, it is so small as to be climatically immaterial (which is the other thing wrong with Podesta’s blog headline—it won’t “curb” climate change a whit).

In 2013, methane emissions accounted for about 9% of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States. (Carbon dioxide accounted for 82%.)  Of this 9%, about 3% are the subject to the proposed EPA regulations—which seeks to cut those emissions in half.

So how much “climate change” would such regulation avert in the future? Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation:

Using our handy dandy temperature savings calculator, you can find out that if the United States were to cease all carbon dioxide emissions now and forever, the amount of global warming that would be “saved” amounts to 0.10°C by the end of the century (assuming a 2.0°C climate sensitivity, which is more realistic than the 3.0°C value the EPA is fond of). So if halting 87% of our greenhouse gas emissions produces a saving of 0.10°C, then halting 1.5% of our greenhouse gas emissions produces about 0.002°C of temperature savings.

That’s it. Two-thousandths of a degree of warming averted by the new EPA regulations!

Perhaps what is most odd with the newly proposed regulations is that in their absence, methane emissions from the natural gas and oil sector, according to the EPA’s own data, have declined about 10% since 2008—a time when U.S. oil and natural gas production has skyrocketed.

In fact, all of this decline has come from the natural gas industry. (Methane emissions from oil production has actually increased slightly.) Why? Largely because natural gas producers want to limit losses of the very thing they are trying to produce. Consequently, they have developed and employed new technologies to prevent leakage all along the line from drilling, to transportation, to processing. Undoubtedly, they will continue to do this in the future.

So, the ongoing and self-incentivized trend toward declining emissions, along with an imperceptible influence on global warming, means that the newly proposed methane regulations from the EPA are completely unneeded.

This leads to the conclusion that they are being imposed for appearance’s sake only—appearing to burnish President Obama’s climate legacy with an eye toward increasing his clout during this December’s United Nations climate meeting. There, in Paris, he is going to champion a new, “legally binding” treaty on climate change. The same was supposed to happen during the Copenhagen meeting in 2009, where posturing hype was the order of the year. That didn’t work out very well, as the meeting was a complete failure. We anticipate a similar result will come out of Paris.