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EPA proposes rollback of regulations on methane gas

Methane considered contributor to climate change
Posted at 5:40 PM, Aug 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-29 18:23:00-04

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed changes Thursday for regulations on methane gas emissions, saying it would save the oil and natural gas industry “millions of dollars in compliance costs each year” and “remove regulatory duplication,” while “maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”

The Trump administration had proposed easing requirements for oil and gas companies to monitor and plug methane leaks. Methane is the part of natural gas that sometimes escapes through leaks or intentional release during drilling operations.

The Associated Press reported that some in the oil and gas industry are welcoming the proposed changes, while others have said they would rather see increased regulations on emissions, worrying about backlash from those concerned about climate change.

The EPA said its taking comments on the proposal for 60 days and plans to hold a public hearing. It proposed two “co-actions” that differ in some ways but both rescind methane emissions limitations.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, Ohio has more than 55,000 producing oil and natural gas wells. There are about 6,300 registered oil and gas companies in the state.

The Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management said that in 2018, Ohio produced more than 22.5 million barrels (42 gallons per barrel) and 2.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Most of the drilling activity takes place in eastern Ohio, in the Utica/Point Pleasant shale.

The state climatologist of Ohio, Dr. Bryan Mark, said methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but noted it’s less abundant and spends less time in the atmosphere.

On Tuesday, Mark, who is a professor of geography at The Ohio State University and a researcher at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, discussed the impacts of climate change on the state of Ohio. He said the frequency with which Ohio is seeing extreme precipitation and severe weather events is increasing.

“As we’ve seen a warming trend, what we’ve seen in terms of precipitation in Ohio has come down to intensification of rainfall, which means that as the atmosphere gets warmer, it can hold more moisture, but it falls in more concentrated events,” Mark said. “We measure that in many different ways, but we can see a very clear signal in the intensification of precipitation in this part of the world, as well as the northeast.”

That’s been evident in Ohio in the past couple of years, particularly when it comes to record water levels in Lake Erie, Mark said.

“This past year in 2018 was a really wet year,” Mark said. “Broke a lot of records in certain counties, came in as the third wettest overall for the state in all of our records. And so when you add that with warm conditions where you’re not getting a whole lot of relief, or cold conditions that freeze and then […] don’t really release that moisture from the soil, then you end up with a condition of a lot of runoff and the lakes are kind of a good indicator of that total, watershed-wide water balance.”

The year 2018 also brought extreme variability within seasons, Mark said, noting that the month of April 2018 was the ninth coldest April on record in Ohio, while the month of May was the warmest May on record.

“We like to just disentangle weather from climate, weather being instantaneous and very chaotic,” Mark said. “But then we think about changes in the overall state of things. If we shift the mean temperature, which we’re seeing pretty unequivocally, so average temperature’s gone up, you’re also shifting the extremes. And if it were just a random occurrence around that mean, maybe you’d expect to see record highs and lows at about the same frequency. But instead what we’re seeing is a much higher frequency of the higher temperature anomalies, which tells us it’s not really going as a no-change state. It’s not just a chaotic thing we’re seeing, so we’re seeing an actual tendency toward more probability of these warmer conditions.”

The changing climate has also had an effect on farmers, Mark said, noting that Ohio has seen an increase of 5 to 15 percent in annual precipitation since 1901, compared to about 4 percent nationwide.

“If you get a lot of moisture in the ground, you need to dry it out before you can get a tractor on the ground to plant, and then similarly in the fall when you’re harvesting,” Mark said. What you end up with is this change in the time that you can actually be in the field to do your work,” about five fewer days each in April and October.

Still, heavier rainfall doesn’t always mean wet conditions all the time, especially with warmer temperatures.

“The paradox with warmer temperatures is that you also evaporate really fast,” Mark said. “And so droughts can be quite intense, just like we saw this past summer and we’re in right now, some mild drought conditions in Ohio, even after that very wet spring.”