In the closing days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management enacted controversial methane regulations for oil and gas development on federal lands. BLM’s so-called venting and flaring rule sought to reduce emissions and increase royalties, all built on the assumption that large quantities of natural gas are wasted during oil and gas production.
But new data tell a different story.
In developing a justification for its rule, the BLM relied in part on emissions data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But earlier this year, the EPA downwardly revised its estimates for venting and flaring emissions from petroleum development, which could raise legitimate questions about whether the BLM rule could still be justified.
In the EPA’s 2017 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which was released just months after the BLM rule took effect, the EPA estimated that associated gas venting and flaring from petroleum systems totaled 3.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015. But EPA’s 2018 GHGI slashed that estimate to 1.7 MMT CO2 eq., a reduction of more than 54 percent.
Previous years show even larger revisions. Associated gas venting and flaring estimates for 2014, 2013 and 2012 were revised down by 73 percent, 86 percent and 93 percent, respectively.
When compared to the 2017 data, the 2018 GHGI also downwardly revised its estimates for methane emissions from all petroleum systems by an average of 13 MMT CO2 eq., or about 28 percent, between 1990 and 2015.
In other words, much of the methane “waste” that the Obama administration was targeting with its controversial regulation may have never actually existed.
In addition to these new data, a serious debate over costs continues. BLM’s rule is estimated to cost Western states $1.26 billion in foregone wages, production and tax revenue. The North Dakota Industrial Commission estimated that implementing the venting and flaring rule would result in less production, which would mean a $24 million annual loss of state revenue from royalties and taxes. This loss of just one state’s revenue outweighs the $3 million to $13 million in additional federal royalties that BLM estimated the rule would generate.
Yet environmental activists continue to defend the BLM rule, all while opposing the kinds of efforts that would reduce emissions.
For example, streamlining pipeline approvals on federal lands would help reduce flaring and ensure more natural gas is delivered to market. The stated purpose of the BLM rule was to deliver better returns for taxpayers, which cannot happen if the fuel isn’t efficiently transported to market.
But if expanded pipeline infrastructure would help reduce emissions, why have activist groups like the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity fought so hard to block pipelines while suing to ensure the BLM regulation is enacted?
Because for many of these groups, it’s about stopping oil and gas development altogether.
As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in 2016 when the BLM rule was announced: “The science is clear that the best thing this Administration can do to ensure our public lands are managed in the public’s interest is to end all fossil fuel extraction on them entirely, and today’s action from BLM represents a positive step towards reining in this industry’s misuse of our public lands.”
While the latest data appear to undercut the basis for the Obama-era BLM rule, Brune’s admission was a telling one. No amount of data will ever matter when federal methane rules are viewed as a means to an end – an end to the U.S. shale revolution that has reduced our reliance on foreign oil, enhanced our energy security and saved American consumers billions of dollars in monthly energy costs.
Steve Everley is spokesman for Texans for Natural Gas, a grassroots advocacy program with more than 250,000 members.
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