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EPA Rescinds Methane Control Regulations. What Does It Mean for Methane Detection Technology?

EPA weakens oversight of potent greenhouse gas emissions with August 13 rule change, but leak detection technology continues to improve.

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas. Although over one year the mass of anthropogenic methane emissions is only 1/100 the mass of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, methane is inherently about 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. Since 2016, oil and gas companies have been required to follow a protocol called leak detection and repair (LDAR) to eliminate methane emissions from certain classes of equipment. On 13 August 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency rescinded this rule.

While EPA acknowledges some value in finding and fixing methane leaks, it contends that older rules directed to leaks of volatile organic compounds (VOC) are adequate to solve the methane problem. In its 2019 notice of proposed rulemaking, EPA stated that methane controls and VOC controls are redundant. Responding in a public submission comment, Andrew Pomerantz and I found that for currently approved technologies as commonly implemented, the EPA statement is valid. However, for newly developed technologies that have the potential to significantly reduce the cost of compliance for regulated entities, the statement is invalid. The newly developed technologies we were referring to are primarily aircraft- and satellite-borne sensors, which are sensitive to methane but inherently insensitive to VOC; the scientific basis for our conclusions is described in our submission.

The 2016 LDAR rules were extraordinarily prescriptive. They required high sensitivity (0.03 kg/h) inspection of a specified list of components. Two and only two means to satisfy leak detection requirements were accepted, both of which were capable of finding the smallest leaks, but tended to miss the largest ones. In theory, new technology could be accepted as valid means of leak detection, via rules for alternative means of emission limitation (AMEL). However, the AMEL rules themselves were so onerous that no application for acceptance of new technology has been submitted to EPA, let alone allowed.

Despite this highly restrictive regulatory environment, a plethora of methane leak detection technologies have been introduced and deployed in the years since 2016. This activity has been driven by the realization in academic, technology, O&G industry, and environmental advocacy communities that (1) methane emissions are a leading cause of climate change, and that (2) methane emission mitigation from the oil and gas industry was easier, less disruptive, and has a bigger short-term impact than carbon dioxide mitigation.

Using new technology, a substantial number of large-scale field studies of oilfield methane emissions have been conducted, even though the methods used in these studies could not be used to satisfy 2016 EPA requirements for routine inspections. These studies have demonstrated that facility-level measurements, even when 100 to 1000 times less sensitive than EPA mandates, are highly efficient and effective in mitigating methane emissions. However, not only are these methods out of compliance with EPA LDAR rules, but they could not, in principle, be validated by the AMEL procedure.

In response to notices of proposed rulemaking, academic, technology, and environmental advocacy communities, and larger companies in the O&G industry, spoke with one voice in favor of liberalization of LDAR and AMEL rules. EPA answered on 13 August 2020.

A preliminary look of the 609 pages of final rule and regulatory impact analysis finds the EPA’s answer somewhat inconsistent. Responses to public submission comments were generally dismissive, as expected, but also reveal some recognition of realities on the ground. In particular, the Kleinberg-Pomerantz submission, one of 295,060 comments received in connection with this regulation, is quoted at length. The new AMEL rules for acceptance of novel leak detection technology have been liberalized in some useful ways. We didn’t get everything that we wanted in this respect, but we have made some important progress.

Although the main result of the August 13 final rule is disappointing, there are several avenues by which methane emission control regulations can be reinstated. In my opinion, there is a better-than-even chance they will be. I am working to ensure that if methane emissions are once again regulated, the useful changes just adopted by EPA making it easier to employ new technology will be retained and extended.

Robert L. Kleinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, is Principal of Presidio Energy Technology and adjunct senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy of Columbia University. Read his related blog commentary

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.

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Jacquie  Ashmore's picture

Thank Jacquie for the Post!

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