Colorado BLM Field Office Takes Critical Action To Clean Up Oil and Gas Industry Methane Pollution and Waste (blog 12.19.13)

The oil and gas industry is the nation’s largest source of methane emissions, which annually are comparable to the CO2 emissions of at least 60 coal-fired power plants. These emissions not only waste valuable natural gas, but methane is also a greenhouse gas pollutant that is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20-year time horizon. In his Climate Action Plan, President Obama recognized methane’s fundamental threat to our climate, stating that “[c]urbing emissions of methane is critical to our overall effort to address global climate change.” 

For years, WELC has been pressing the Bureau of Land Management, in its role as steward of our nation’s public lands, to stop methane waste and pollution from oil and gas development on public lands across the West. Through broad ranging engagement in agency decision-making at administrative and policy levels, as well as through the courts, WELC has been hammering away on BLM’s obligations under existing federal laws and regulations to protect the climate and reduce methane waste.  Our efforts have begun to produce results evinced by critical shifts in agency management of our public lands.

For example, in a recent update of their long-term resource plan, the BLM Tres Rios Field Office (TRFO), in southwestern Colorado, took an unprecedented and tough stand against methane pollution and waste. This area, which contains approximately 800,000 acres of shale oil and gas reserves managed by BLM, is quickly becoming a major target for the oil and gas industry. Critically, the TRFO’s new plan will force drilling and production operations to control methane emissions as a preliminary condition for future development. According to the plan:

"Much emphasis is also put into reducing CH4 [methane] emissions from drilling and gas production activities. Reducing CH4 [methane] emissions would reduce emissions of a significant greenhouse gas and increase CH4 [methane] gas revenue sales benefitting both the operator and the federal government."

To achieve these methane emissions reductions, the plan requires industry to implement a number of proven emissions mitigation control technologies. While these requirements represent a critical step in reducing methane waste, the field office does, however, leave several important and cost-effective measures on the table. Accordingly, WELC is urging the agency to adopt additional methane controls to target several unaddressed emissions sources. 

Perhaps best of all, implementing these measures is a clear win-win as most of these controls quickly pay for themselves and then return profits year after year through the sale of captured gas. Indeed, the oil and gas industry’s failure to implement such measures sooner is truly confounding.

Simultaneous to the TRFO’s new plan, the Colorado State BLM Office is working to develop a larger suite of methane emissions controls, as well as controls on “the pace, place, density, and intensity of leasing and development,” that all Colorado Field Offices will be able to draw from to reduce methane pollution and waste from oil and gas activities. (Look out for a future blog post that takes a closer look at the Colorado State BLM “protocol”.) With several Colorado Field Offices currently engaged in the revision of their long-term plans, there is more work to be done to leverage the gains achieved by the TRFO and to ensure that BLM is adopting adequate emissions controls across Colorado, and, more broadly, throughout the West. 

In addition to this place-based work, nationally the BLM has committed to overhauling its 30-year old oil and gas waste rule. This rule applies to all federal lands managed by the agency, but has, to date, been ineffective in reducing methane waste or pollution. WELC has been a leader in pushing the BLM toward making this critical policy transformation, and we’re hopeful that the agency will be encouraged by the pioneering efforts of the TRFO in requiring emissions controls at the planning stage. The agency’s soon-to-be updated waste rule represents a critical step for ensuring that the powerful oil and gas industry acts more responsibly when drilling our public lands – both through the use of BLM’s front-end planning tools as well as by requiring back-end technology controls on emissions.

Finally, WELC has developed a set of core principles to help us evaluate state and field office actions as well as the waste rule update, and to give BLM an early signal as to what we think a good rule should look like. Here’s how the TRFO’s actions stack up against some of our most important core principles:

WELC Principle: The time for action on methane pollution and waste is now.

TRFO Action: By including methane controls in its resource plan, TRFO is rightly taking action before any leases are sold or wells are drilled. 

WELC Principle: Methane emissions and waste should be prevented from all oil and gas sources.

TRFO Action: TRFO has overlooked some important sources, such as well cleanups, compressors, pipelines, and leak throughout the system.

WELC Principle: Emissions and waste from both existing and future oil and gas operations should be covered.

TRFO Action: In an especially important move, TRFO is requiring both replacement of existing pneumatic controllers and use of low-polluting controllers in new equipment. Recent research has confirmed that pneumatics are responsible for much more methane pollution and waste than previously thought.

WELC Principle: Natural gas venting and flaring should be significantly reduced and at times prohibited.

TRFO Action: All of the methane emissions controls in the TRFO plan are aimed at reducing methane venting and flaring. WELC will be vigilant in ensuring that these controls are implemented and enforced in future leasing, well drilling, and production activity in the TRFO region.

This work has just begun, and WELC will remain at the forefront of efforts, along with our partners, to ensure that the BLM, in managing public oil and gas resources on federal lands, fulfills its duty to protect the climate and reduce methane waste.

For more information on WELC's work to reduce methane waste from oil and gas operations on public lands, click here.

Blog Profile

Tom SInger

Tom Singer works to encourage electric utilities in the Southwest to ramp up investment in renewable energy, distributed generation and energy efficiency, and to reduce their reliance on coal and natural gas. He also works to require oil and gas producers to report their GHG emissions and adopt best practices to eliminate methane leaks and vents. Prior to joining WELC, Tom focused on these issues as a Senior Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council and served as the Director of Research for the Western Governors’ Association. Tom holds a BA from Harvard University, an MBA from Stanford Business School and a Ph.D. in International Business from the George Washington University. Tom works from our Southwest office and can be reached at 505-231-1070.

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