Natural gas and oil production is the second-biggest source of U.S. greenhouse gases, the government said, emboldening environmentalists who say tighter measures are needed to curb the emissions from hydraulic fracturing.
In its second-annual accounting of emissions that cause global warming from stationary sources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the first time included oil and natural-gas production. Emissions from drilling, including fracking, and leaks from transmission pipes totaled 225 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents during 2011, second only to power plants, which emitted about 10 times that amount.
Gas and oil production “is an area where we have technological answers to our problems,” Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in an interview. “We know how to fix many of these problems; we just need to make the decision to do it.”
The EPA yesterday released on its website details of emissions from about 8,000 factories, power plants and refineries. Two coal-fired power facilities owned by Atlanta-based Southern Co. topped the list, followed by one owned by Energy Future Holdings Corp. of Dallas.
In total, power plants emitted 2,221 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, down 4.5 percent from 2010, according to the agency. The EPA report showed the benefits of fracking, as it attributed the reduction to cuts in coal use and increased use of gas as fuel by electricity generators. There was also an increased use of power from renewable sources such as solar and wind, the agency said.
“This report confirms that major carbon reductions from power plants wouldn’t be possible without a reliable and affordable supply of domestically produced natural gas,” Simon Lomax, research director at Energy in Depth, an industry group, said in an e-mail.
The EPA report on oil and gas looked at emissions from basins, or large production areas, not individual wells. Among the top emitters were ConocoPhillips’ operations in the San Juan basin in New Mexico, and Apache Corp.’s operations in the Permian basin in Texas. Both companies are based in Houston.
“ConocoPhillips continues to seek out ways to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions,” Daren Beaudo, a spokesman for the company said in an e-mail. The company is working to cut methane venting with gas conservation and waste-heat recovery, he said.
Apache has been growing rapidly in the Permian basin, where it’s now the second-largest producer, Bill Mintz, a spokesman for the company, said in an interview. “We have done some infrastructure projects that improved our emissions performance in 2012.”
The EPA has already proposed regulations to curb emissions from new power plants, setting a standard that would preclude the construction of new coal-fired facilities that don’t capture and sink underground the carbon coming from their smokestacks. Once those rules are finished in the coming weeks, the EPA must move to establish similar rules for existing power plants.
Environmental groups have asked the agency to establish standards to prevent methane leakages from the drilling, fracking and transport of oil and gas. The boom in that production in states such as Pennsylvania and North Dakota means that those rules are necessary, according to environmental groups.
Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, but it’s more efficient at trapping radiation, making its short-term impact 20-times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.
“Reducing fugitive methane emissions is a top priority because they are so powerful” a force for global warming, said Mark Brownstein, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund in New York. “You want to make sure the goose is laying what approximates golden eggs.”