Utah oil and gas producers push back against new federal methane emissions rule

The Biden administration announced the Environmental Protection Agency’s new methane rule at the COP28 climate change conference.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Pumpjacks dip their heads to extract oil in a basin south of Duchesne on Thursday, July 13, 2023. The Environmental Protection Agency just announced new methane standards for the oil and gas industry.

New federal standards claim to slash methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, but Utah’s oil and gas companies say they are already doing that — and that the new requirements will be difficult to adhere to in the rural Uinta Basin.

“We have a significant voluntary effort underway for reducing emissions in the Uinta Basin,” said Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, a statewide oil and gas trade association. The majority of Utah’s oil and gas production takes place in the Uinta Basin.

“Our primary interest is in taking actions, either voluntary or through well-developed regulations, that will be cost-effective toward improving air quality while maintaining a viable and thriving oil and gas industry,” Hrenko-Browning continued.

The Biden administration announced the Environmental Protection Agency’s new methane rule at COP28, the annual United Nations climate change conference, where leaders convened in the United Arab Emirates to discuss climate solutions.

The EPA says that the rule will take 58 million tons of methane emissions out of the atmosphere from 2024 to 2038.

The oil and natural gas industry is the largest industrial methane emitter in the United States — accounting for a third of the nation’s emissions — according to the White House.

“This rule is a bold step in the right direction in terms of reigning in this country’s climate change crisis, in addition to health benefits,” Nini Gu, the Western legislative and regulatory manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s methane program, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, is the main component of natural gas. There are three main types of methane emissions sources in oil and natural gas production: venting, flaring and leaking.

Leaking occurs due to faulty equipment or lack of monitoring at well sites, which leads to methane escaping into the atmosphere. These fugitive emissions are a scourge to the industry, too, since the escaped gas could be captured, processed and sold as natural gas.

The EPA’s new rule specifically targets leaks, which are also called fugitive emissions. The agency encourages oil and gas companies to use new technology to monitor production sites for leaks and requires companies to ensure that wells are properly plugged before ending emissions monitoring.

A report released earlier this year stated that of the 16 billion cubic feet of natural gas wasted in Utah in 2019, 87% was lost from leaks.

The rule also addresses flaring. Flaring is the burning of excess natural gas, which still results in greenhouse gas emissions, but ultimately reduces emissions by converting methane to carbon dioxide.

The EPA says that flaring burns 99% of methane into carbon dioxide, but a 2022 study found that flares effectively destroy just 91% of methane.

The new rule will phase out flaring at new well sites. That has Utah’s oil and gas industry concerned, Hrenko-Browning wrote to The Tribune.

“The Uinta Basin has limited natural gas off-take capacity, and natural gas pipelines are difficult to permit,” she said. Off-take capacity is the space available for transporting natural gas via pipeline.

“This leaves an untenable position for the industry of not being allowed to flare but not having a viable option for transport out of the basin,” Hrenko-Browning continued.

The EPA says that companies will have two years to phase out routine flaring at new oil wells. Hrenko-Browning expects that the expected changes will “require complex and litigious permitting processes unlikely to be accomplished in the requested time frame.”

Oil and natural gas production also emits volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which contribute to smog formation, according to the EPA. The EPA reports that its new rule will eliminate 16 million tons of volatile organic compound emissions from 2024 to 2038.

The EPA announced its proposal to update its previous methane emissions rule with improved standards and requirements for oil and natural gas facilities in November last year. The agency said that it reviewed over 1 million public comments while finalizing the rule.