Hard as it may seem to believe given the noise surrounding the issue, methane emissions from U.S. natural gas production actually fell 14 percent between 1990 and 2016. This, despite the fact that during the same period natural gas production rose by more than 50 percent, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
This is a welcome development in two ways. First, the decline in methane emissions was achieved by oil and gas companies taking voluntary action without government regulation. Second, and more fundamentally, major oil and gas companies are taking the lead and recognizing the reality that in the real world, the effort to control greenhouse-gas emissions – and, for that matter, environmental stewardship generally – leadership has to come from the private sector.
But Pastor Richard Mansfield in a letter to the editor (“Health Hazards of Methane Necessitate a Rule,” June 11), shudders to think of air pollution from methane, which he sees as having serious implications for public health, especially if the Bureau of Land Management does nothing to restrict oil and gas production on public lands. Mansfield and the anti-shale crowd for whom he speaks have got it wrong. The oil and gas industry has stepped in to rectify the situation, recognizing that BLM regulation would have the perverse effect of hampering energy production and standing in the way of improvements in air quality. Thanks to the shale revolution, we are seeing a meaningful improvement in our public health and economic well-being.
The reduction in methane emissions is a good example of a system that works. Methane accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It is far more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, staying in the atmosphere for a shorter time but with an impact that is more than 70 times greater.
Last year, 10 leading international oil and gas companies – including Shell and BP – pledged to support a goal of achieving “near zero” methane emissions, with commitments to conduct “systematic monitoring”of natural gas production and processing facilities. And, importantly, the companies made a commitment to reduce the flaring of natural gas. Methane is the primary constituent of natural gas, and instead of being burned off during oil production, it’s being shipped by pipeline, wherever possible, and sold to petrochemical companies.
Then, in January, 26 U.S. oil and gas companies, among them ExxonMobil, Chevron and other major companies, launched a voluntary program aimed at reducing methane and volatile organic compound emissions in oil and gas operations around the country, including the Permian Basin. Known as the Environmental Partnership, the initiative involves the monitoring and repair of emissions at selected sites using Optical Gas Imaging cameras that can detect methane leaks.
But for now, it’s hard to overstate the degree to which the economies of New Mexico and the United States have been transformed by the shale revolution. A combination of two technologies – hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – has unlocked massive supplies of oil and gas, driving down fuel costs and benefiting consumers. Lower oil and gas prices saved the average American family about $700 last year.
And while it’s become fashionable among environmental groups to disparage the oil and gas industry, the truth is that shale gas production, in particular, has been a huge plus for the environment. Natural gas has become a low-cost, low-emission alternative to coal. Natural gas is now the nation’s No. 1 source of electricity, having surpassed coal. As a result, carbon emissions from electricity production have plummeted to late 1980s levels.
What’s more, the switch from coal to gas has provided real gains for public health. As coal plants have closed – about 58,000 megawatts of coal power have been retired since 2010 – emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates have fallen. Years ago, during air pollution episodes, the emergency rooms at hospitals used to be crowded with young children and older people suffering from asthma and other lung ailments. Air pollution is less of a problem today, thanks in large part to the shift to natural gas.
CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, is a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.