As the Biden administration develops new methane regulations for the oil and gas industry, a recent report revealed that some smaller producers emit disproportionally more methane, though larger companies are still responsible for the bulk of emissions.
The 195 smallest companies by fuel output produced 9% of oil and gas and 22% of total reported emissions, according to a June 1 report released by the Clean Air Task Force and Ceres, both of which focus on climate research and action.
"Our report clearly shows that one oil and gas company is not the same as another when it comes to production emissions," Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, said in a release accompanying the report. "The oil and gas companies that minimize and most effectively manage their emissions will be best positioned to survive the transition to a net-zero emissions future."
The report focused on onshore oil and gas production and used 2019 emissions and production data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The top 100 oil and gas producers out of the 295 reporting data emitted nearly 80% of total reported methane and greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. But some of the smaller producers had much greater methane emissions intensities than their larger counterparts, demonstrating that "production rank does not correspond to emissions rank," the report said.
However, gas producers in the top quartile of methane emissions intensity had a nearly 22 times greater emissions intensity than those in the bottom quartile, the report said. All told, oil and gas companies in the top quartile based on greenhouse gas emissions intensity had a 10 times greater intensity than those in the bottom quartile.
Emissions among the larger companies also varied significantly. The 11 largest producers accounted for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions — with the greatest emitter responsible for 14 times more pollution than the smallest.
Companies use varying equipment and practices, resulting in significant discrepancies in methane emissions intensity — the quantity of methane emitted per unit of fuel produced, the report found. Pneumatic controllers were responsible for about 54% of total reported methane emissions from the production segment in 2019 while fuel combustion equipment, such as engines, contributed about 49% of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report.
In 2019, the major production basins contributed to the bulk of methane and carbon dioxide emissions, the report indicated. The five largest basins produced 80% of the nation's oil and 66% of natural gas while releasing 51% of methane and 78% of carbon dioxide emissions.
Many environmentalists view methane emissions from the industry as low-hanging fruit in the fight against climate change, given the greenhouse gas' outsized global warming potential and shorter atmospheric life compared to carbon dioxide. The U.S. needs "strong, sensible regulation of the oil and gas industry if we're to have any hope of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and staving off the worst impacts of climate change," said Sarah Smith, super pollutants program director at the Clean Air Task Force.
The Biden administration is working on new methane regulations under the EPA that may resemble those enacted under the Obama administration. The oil and gas industry has become increasingly supportive of federal methane regulations, with some trade groups calling for more company flexibility under any upcoming standards.
"It's not whether you regulate, but when you regulate you target those regulations appropriately," Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a recent interview.