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The newly identified emissions "would increase total emissions from the natural gas supply chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent if added to the tally," said EDF's Mark Brownstein. (Photo: EnergyTomorrow/cc/flickr)

Newly Exposed Methane Threat Trumps Latest 'False Solution' on Emissions

Previously overlooked natural gas gathering facilities spewing as much methane as 37 coal-fired power plants

Lauren McCauley

Environmental groups are raising flags over what they say is another "false solution" as the Obama administration on Tuesday put forth its new proposed methane emissions rules.

Meanwhile, a new study revealed that those very emissions are in fact "substantially higher" than official estimates, adding to the growing body of evidence showing that the proliferation of natural gas—even if "capped"—will only exacerbate climate change.

The study, led by researchers at Colorado State University and published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that natural gas gathering facilities lose about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year, amounting to roughly eight times more than previous estimates used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The facilities, which collect from multiple wells before distributing the gas to power plants and homes, have been overlooked by previous emission surveys. "Yet," notes Mark Brownstein, vice president in the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate and Energy Program, "they may be the largest methane source in the oil and gas supply chain."

The newly identified emissions "would increase total emissions from the natural gas supply chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent if added to the tally," Brownstein notes.

Further, the emitted methane "packs the same 20-year climate impact as 37 coal-fired power plants," and is said to be 87 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

The new research comes on the heels of another study which found that the instruments used to measure methane emissions were faulty, causing current assessments to underestimate actual emission rates "by factors of three to five."

Natural gas has been championed by the White House and other politicians as a "green" alternative to coal and oil. However, research into the environmental impacts—whether by fracking or methane emissions—have shown it to be increasingly unviable.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration released the first-ever plan to reduce methane emissions as part of its new climate strategy. The proposed standards would cap the amount of methane and volatile organic compounds (VOC) being emitted from new and modified oil and gas facilities.

While individuals who live close to fossil fuel facilities welcomed the rule as a major public health effort, environmentalists said it neglected to account for the significant emissions from older wells and did not go nearly far enough to address climate change. 

"The regulation of methane cannot become a justification for continuing our reliance on fossil fuels," said Friends of the Earth climate and energy campaigner Kate DeAngelis. "The real solution to climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to clean up the abandoned wells that continue to poison our air."

And Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, agreed, saying that the rules "could not possibly hold off the growing climate crisis."

Rather, Hauter added, "these regulations would wrongly promote natural gas as a ‘clean’ alternative to oil and coal. These weak regulations leave the impression that pursuing natural gas benefits the environment, providing a justification for continuing to drill and frack."


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