This week, the PA Department of Environmental Protection released its updated emission inventory for the unconventional natural gas industry (a.k.a. Marcellus Shale drillers).
If you hear only one sound bite this week, it will be that emissions are going down. While that is good news, the part of the story that you might not hear is that emission are going down in "some" categories and going up in others. When we look at the data, it seems the big winner in terms of reductions is in well completions. That said, methane emissions on fugitives, pumps and dehydrators are way UP.
|Comparison of Methane Emissions|
(PA DEP data)
So, why are well completion emissions dropping? This is primarily a result of the phasing in of federal New Source Performance Standards that require what are known as "green completions." This means that instead of simply venting the methane as was often done in the past, the gas is directed to a flare where it is burnt. Starting this year, operators will need to go one better and capture the methane and sell it rather than burn it. The short story here is, if you want to reduce emissions, regulations work.
While the general trends we are seeing were expected, it's important to remember that this data is self-reported by the industry and we have to assume it isn't perfect. When we investigated the 2012 submissions we found quite a few inconsistencies in the methodology. What we can see so far in 2013 also raises a few questions. For example, when we look at the top ten emitters of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), only three of them appear in the top ten of methane emitters. Out of 103 companies reporting, Range Resources Appalacia LLC is the number one emitter of VOCs, releasing 1,100 tons, but only 26th on the list of top methane emitters at 595 tons. Nobel Energy Inc. has an even greater disparity, being the 7th largest VOC emitter producing 173 tons, but only reporting a single ton of methane emissions.
This one table doesn't tell the story for the whole industry, however. There are roughly 60,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania and only about 10,000 of them are the unconventional wells listed in this report. As a recent report from Laura Legere at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed us, it isn't only the Marcellus drillers that have problems. Regulating some methane from some sources is a start, but we need a comprehensive plan to regulate all of the methane emissions NOW.
Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.