Monday, September 28, 2015

Methane Emissions and the Oil and Gas Industry

Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced proposed rules for methane emissions for new sources in the oil and gas industry. Last week, the agency held hearings in Dallas and Denver on the proposed regulations and today they had the final hearing in Pittsburgh. Below is the testimony I gave:

My name is Melinda Hughes, and I live in DuBois, PA. I want to thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on the proposed methane emissions regulations.

In addition to being a citizen concerned about the health of our environment and having a Masters Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from the Vermont Law School, I am also the President and co-founder of the national nonprofit Nature Abounds which has supporters and volunteers across all 50 states. Among our focuses is natural resources extraction, which we experience in our own backyard with coal mining, conventional gas and oil drilling, as well as fracking. We have a significant focus on the effects of climate change from which the world is already experiencing and our children and grandchildren will be far into the future. As you know, we can’t work on fracking or climate change without also looking at the effects of methane emissions.

I strongly support EPA’s recently proposed methane pollution standards for the oil and gas industry, although I only see this as a first step. We really need stronger protections to ensure a healthy future for all living creatures. Many flora and fauna species are already having to adapt to the warmer world. Continuing to allow greenhouse gases continue with industry going about business-as-usual only worsens the problem.

It is already known that methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, and in fact, 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20 year time-frame. Methane is a powerful contributor to climate change and in 2013 alone, the oil and gas sources emitted over 7.3 million metric tons of methane. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from over 160 coal-burning power plants, and in this one year of 2013, methane accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the EPA website.

With less methane in the atmosphere we also reduce risk. According to the US Department of Energy, the most significant health hazard associated with methane is that it is highly combustible and mixtures of just 5 to 15 percent of methane in air can be explosive. Large concentrations of methane in enclosed areas can lead to suffocation as large amounts of methane will decrease the amount of available oxygen in the air. The effects of oxygen deficiency are nausea, headaches, dizziness, and unconsciousness. These are the effects on normal people, but the risks are even greater for those with health problems, especially respiratory.

This leads me to my next point. Many fracking sites are around the country are located in mountainous areas like Pennsylvania and Colorado, where air is known to get trapped between the valleys. In fact, our area is known for having some of the worst air pollution in the country due to air becoming trapped. We are also known for some of the highest rates of respiratory issues like lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Adding more air pollution only exacerbates the problem, while reducing methane emissions will help.

The air pollution that does escape the valleys can travel far. A recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland looked at hourly measurements between 2010 and 2013 in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas of ethane and methane, both gases found in natural gas.  While there wasn’t much information on methane sources at the time, they found that ethane measurements increased by 30 percent in that time period. Ironically, fracking operations aren’t found in Maryland and DC, but they are in the neighboring upwind states of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where fracking was booming during this period. Note that researchers ruled out other potential sources of pollution. They also compared their findings with cities that aren’t downwind from fracking operations such as Atlanta, and these areas did not show changes in their ethane and methane emissions.

In closing, the oil and gas industry must take responsibility for their pollution, rather than asking the public and our environment to bear the burden. Too often is the profit privatized while the effects and clean-up costs are socialized. The proposed standards will not only help with methane, but will also help to curb other hazardous air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released from oil and gas sources alongside methane. As I mentioned earlier, these proposed rules are an important first step towards reducing the harm of this industry. I hope that the EPA will strengthen and finalize these rules and then move swiftly to issue standards covering existing sources, within the oil and gas industry as well as other contributing sources from other industries. Thank you, again, for allowing me to share my thoughts. 

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