Utah is ‘wasting a domestic energy resource,’ report warns

In 2019, the state lost natural gas primarily through leaking. Proposed federal regulations aim to reduce those emissions.

Utah wasted $48 million worth of natural gas in 2019, mostly due to leaking, according to a new report released Friday. That’s enough natural gas to power over 20% of Utah’s residential gas customers for a year.

The report was published by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., the Environmental Defense Fund and Taxpayers for Common Sense. Synapse is a research and consulting firm focused on the energy sector. The Environmental Defense Fund, a national nonprofit, works to find solutions to climate pollution. Taxpayers for Common Sense is a nonpartisan watchdog group that advocates for the responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

The report, which is based on data from 2019, states that if that lost gas had been captured, Utah could have made $6.7 million in taxes and royalties.

“[Natural gas] is being wasted,” Mike Surrusco, director of campaigns for Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Not only is this an energy resource that we should be collecting royalties on that can be used to fund productive things, but we’re just wasting a domestic energy resource by allowing it to be leaked and flared the way it is nationally, in Utah and across the entire American West.”

Methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, is the primary component of natural gas. The report analyzed the three major sources of methane emissions in natural gas production: venting, flaring and leaking.

Venting is releasing excess natural gas at production wells into the atmosphere. Flaring is the burning of excess natural gas, leading to both methane and carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas operators often vent and flare gas for safety reasons — to prevent explosions — but also do it for economic gain. If operators can’t store the excess gas, it’s easier to get rid of it than to get it to market.

The report stated that in 2019, natural gas producers in Utah wasted a total of 16 billion cubic feet of gas, and found that 87% of that gas was lost from leaks. Leaking is often the result of faulty equipment at natural gas production wells.

“A lot of times, controlling leaks doesn’t require building large amounts of infrastructure,” Nini Gu, the Western legislative and regulatory manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s methane program, told The Tribune. “These are oftentimes component leaks that have very easy fixes.”

“The fact that in Utah such a disproportionate amount of waste comes from leaks, that’s some low-hanging fruit that can be addressed,” Gu continued.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents 200 oil and gas producers in the West, wrote that the new report doesn’t take into account that emissions have decreased over time in email correspondence with The Tribune.

She referred to the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft inventory of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions released this year, which found that methane emissions from natural gas production have decreased by at least 13% since 1990.

“Putting out a PR piece based on old data for emissions that have already been addressed or that will be subject to new regulation soon is misleading,” Sgamma wrote.

According to the report, 47% of Utah’s wasted gas came from operations on land owned by the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates natural gas production on federal land and has issued a proposal that would update methane regulations to reduce emissions from oil and gas production.

The agency says that strengthening its regulations would reduce the natural gas that’s wasted nationwide through venting, flaring and leaking, resulting in the recovery of enough gas from 2023 to 2025 to heat 3.5 million homes through the winter.

The proposal would ensure that natural gas production wells are routinely monitored for leaks, encourage companies to install monitoring equipment at production sites and require companies to document that they’ve plugged their wells before they stop monitoring for emissions.

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August 2022, also incentivizes oil and gas companies to reduce their emissions through the Methane Emissions Reduction Program. The federal government set aside over $1 billion to assist companies with greenhouse gas reports, installing emissions-reducing equipment and plugging wells.